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Federal charges sought in killing of rare cranes

Audubon of Florida is lobbying for the charges, which would carry a penalty much more severe than the state's.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


This month, when state wildlife officials charged a St. Augustine teenager with shooting a pair of whooping cranes, federal investigators said the teenager would not face federal charges.

As a rule, federal prosecutors will not charge a defendant already facing similar state charges.

Now, Audubon of Florida is lobbying federal officials to waive that policy because the federal charges carry a greater penalty than the four misdemeanors filed in state court.

"We would like to see a message sent in terms of deterrence of this kind of vandalism," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida senior vice president.

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.

William Lonnie Bush Jr., 18, scheduled for his first court appearance Tuesday, has no previous adult criminal record in Florida, making it unlikely he would get the maximum penalty in state court.

Considering the amount of money being spent on bringing whoopers back from the brink of extinction, Lee said, killing two of the rarest cranes in the world should rate something more than "a misdemeanor in County Court that gets you community service."

Waiving the federal policy would require U.S. prosecutors in Jacksonville to take the rare step of requesting permission from high-ranking officials in the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., said Mike Elkins, deputy assistant director of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's southeast region.

Audubon members have fired off about 40 e-mails to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, encouraging further prosecution under federal law. Lee is meeting with prosecutors and wildlife officials to urge them to take action.

At this point, federal officials have made no decision about adding the federal charges to Bush's state charges, filed by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We're obviously concerned, and we appreciate that people want to support strict enforcement of our wildlife laws," said federal wildlife agency spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Steve Cole said he could not comment.

Bush is accused of shooting the cranes last month with a .22-caliber Remington rifle as they stood in a rural field outside St. Augustine. He fired several shots from the cab of his blue Chevrolet pickup truck, then drove off, leaving their bodies behind, state investigators said.

A tipster notified state investigators that Bush was trying to get his truck painted to cover up his involvement, and that led to the charges.

Under questioning, wildlife officers say, he admitted to the shooting but said he thought he had just killed a couple of ducks -- even thoughwhooping cranes stand about 4 feet tall and weigh about 15 pounds.

Early in the investigation, state wildlife officers called in their federal counterparts for help, even sending the birds' carcasses off to a federal laboratory in Oregon.

But thereafter, state wildlife officers kept federal investigators in the dark, refusing to share leads and tips, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Joe Oliveros.

The day after state wildlife officers charged Bush, Oliveros said he still did not know the shooter's name.

"They made the decision to charge him in state court without calling anybody," Oliveros said. "I'm kind of really mystified by it all."

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

Agency spokesman Henry Cabbage has e-mailed Audubon members that federal officials are free to file their own charges, and he contended that anyone who says otherwise is "perpetuating a myth."

Lee said Audubon is less concerned with the friction between the two agencies than it is with making sure Bush faces the maximum penalty possible.

"If this young man had gone down to the Navy Yard and destroyed $100,000 in federal property, I don't think anybody would question whether there should be federal charges," Lee said. "That's what happened here."

- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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