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    Teen charged with killing 2 rare cranes

    If convicted, he faces relatively light punishment because federal and state authorities failed to communicate.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


    Two teenagers sat in a blue Chevy pickup, watching a pair of large white birds standing in a field near St. Augustine. The older teen poked a bolt-action .22 Remington out of the window and fired several times.

    The truck drove off, leaving behind two dead whooping cranes.

    This week investigators with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission charged 18-year-old William Lonnie Bush Jr. of St. Augustine with killing the cranes last month.

    The whoopers are the rarest cranes in the world, numbering just 400. But a communications gap between federal and state agencies means that the teenager won't face a stiff federal charge in the killing the endangered birds. Instead, Bush is charged with four state misdemeanors, which carry a far lighter penalty.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Joe Oliveros said state wildlife officers kept federal investigators in the dark, refusing to share leads and tips. Oliveras said he did not even know Bush's name.

    "They made the decision to charge him in state court without calling anybody," precluding federal investigators from filing federal charges, Oliveras told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday. "I'm kind of really mystified by it all."

    The federal offense carries a penalty of up to $25,000 and up to six months in a federal penitentiary. The state charges each carry a maximum penalty of $500 and 60 days in a county jail.

    State wildlife agency spokeswoman Joy Hill said Lt. Robert Lee of the state wildlife agency did keep Oliveros abreast of the investigation, but when the time came to charge Bush, "we tried to get in touch with Oliveras twice and we couldn't. We made the decision we needed to go ahead and make an arrest."

    To Kate Fitzwilliams of the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, not charging Bush with a federal crime seemed questionable. "I think that's unfortunate in what message that's giving to the public," she said.

    Bush could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

    Although Bush admitted the Nov. 19 shooting, he told officers he did not realize he had killed a pair of endangered birds, according to Lee. "He said he thought they were ducks," Lee said Tuesday. "Take that for what it's worth."

    Whooping cranes stand more than 4 feet tall and weigh about 15 pounds.

    "That's a pretty odd duck," Lee said.

    This is the second shooting involving Florida whoopers in recent years. Two years ago someone shot a whooping crane in Orange County, but no one was ever charged.

    Two cases in Texas resulted in federal charges. In 1989, a Houston lawyer shot a whooper he said he thought was a snow goose. He was fined $15,000 and ordered to pay $6,480 in restitution. In 1991, two fishermen who shot a crane on a dare were fined thousands of dollars, and the shooter was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison.

    Of the 400 cranes worldwide, 75 live in Florida.

    The two whoopers killed in St. Augustine were hatched in May 1999 at the International Crane Foundation, where the only humans they came in contact with wore crane costumes.

    They were shipped to Florida, fitted with radio transmitters and released in Lake County. By June of this year, they had traveled to the St. Augustine area. Bird watchers had spotted them in the field a few hours before they were killed. When the bird watchers returned, they found the birds' carcasses.

    A witness had seen a blue mid-size truck with two white males in it parked near the field just prior to the shooting, Lee said. State wildlife officers set up a stakeout to watch for the truck. They also offered a $14,500 reward.

    Because he has family in the area, Bush "was compelled to travel that area often," Lee said. Bush had heard the officers were watching the road for a blue truck like his 1991 Chevy S-10, Lee said.

    A tipster called the reward line to report that Bush was asking around about getting his truck painted a different color, Lee said. That led investigators to question him and the 14-year-old friend who was in the truck during the shooting. The 14-year-old did not participate in the shooting and was not charged, Lee said.

    Bush is scheduled to appear Dec. 19 in St. Johns County Court to face two counts of taking a species of special concern and two counts of taking wildlife from a county road right of way. If a judge chooses to hit Bush with the maximum on all counts, Lee said, he could face a $2,000 fine and 240 days behind bars.

    - Researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this story, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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