I was surprised at the phonecall from an aide to District U.S. Attorney General Joe Hogsett; it appears as though this magazine’s commentary on whooping crane shootings, and subsequent lack of serious prosecution, has been noticed by the Attorney General’s office for the Southern Indiana District.
“The Attorney General would like to sit down with you and discuss the recent whooping crane shooting,” was the message. I was impressed, to say the least.
The most recent whooping crane shooting, reported here just three months ago, involved Jason McCarter and John Cody Burke of Knox County. They are charged with killing a whooping crane in the White River Bottoms near Wheatland.
Hogsett’s intention in sitting down and discussing this case with the Tri-State Outdoor News was to inform us as to how the case was progressing through the federal court system and to demonstrate his office’s “heightened awareness, commitment and sensitivity the attorney general has on this issue due in no small measure to the frustration that came out of the Cayuga (Vermillion County) case in 2009.”
The frustration Hogsett was referring to was the outcome of that case in which two young men, one a juvenile, were charged and found guilty of shooting a whooping crane. The case was not prosecuted on the federal level and the county court only handed down fines of $1 and no additional penalties. Craniacs (those committed to keeping these birds from becoming extinct and those who enjoy watching these brids) were enraged by the outcome and a great deal of public criticism landed on both the Attorney General’s office and the Vermillion County Court. With slightly more than 100 of these birds east of the Mississippi River, to levy a $1 fine with no other penalties was just unbelievable.
Hogsett wanted to make sure that didn’t happen this time. In his hand when we sat down was a document that signaled the end to the federal prosecution. Hogsett game me the news that the shooter, Jason McCarter, had filed an Agreement to Plead Guilty for violating the Migratory Bird Act by Taking or Killing of a Migratory Bird, thus avoiding a criminal trial.
The plea agreement includes: 3 years probation, the lose of hunting privileges, the possession or use of a firearm, the use of alcohol, all during the length of his probation in addition to “an unprecedented number” of community service hours to be served at the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife area and he must pay a $5,000 fine to the International Crane Foundation.
Hogsett said that a similar agreement is expected from John Cody Burke and that both men still face charges in the Indiana Court System.
Hogsett did caution that this is only the recommendation of his office and that the federal court can either accept, modify, or reject the agreement.
In my one-hour meeting with the attorney general, it was clear that he had several messages he wanted to send to the outdoor community, but first and foremost was the message that “there’s a new sheriff in town, for now,” as he said.
“It was not lost on me on what happened in 2009, and that certainly had an impact on my priority. Especially since we’ve had two (more shootings) occur so close together,” he added.
Since 2007, there have been 11 confirmed shootings of whooping cranes in the United States, three of those have occurred in Indiana. In addition to the Knox County shooting in January of this year, there was also a whooping crane shot in Jackson County in December of 2011.
“This certainly has the attention of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement,’ he said. “We’ve had an extraordinary level of focus and time in on the investigation of these killings and I’m cautiously pleased with the closure of one of these issues and still committed to finding all we can about the Jackson County incident.”
Hogsett said the penalties in the Knox County case are fairly significant “but not what was hoped for by the Outdoor News and other constituents.” The penalties assessed are based on what has occurred in other cases involving the illegal taking of migratory birds.
While Hogsett acknowledges the lack of a satisfactory outcome in the Cayuga case, he also explained that contrary to what has been said, he was not the District U.S. Attorney at the time those charges were filed in 2009, although that case concluded after he was named District U.S. Attorney General in 2010. The original charges were filed by then interim U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison.
“The only explanation I can offer why no charges were filed against the shooter in that case was because he was a juvenile and the federal government doesn’t prosecute juveniles. Juvenile cases are handled by the state courts” he said. “I can’t answer as to why no charges were filed against the other individual who was not a juvenile since it occurred before I was appointed.”
While the penalties could have been far greater in both cases, and should have been since they involve an endangered specie, Hogsett clearly indicated his office will pursue these types of cases “vigorously” because he would like to see Indiana’s reputation change in terms of this being a dangerous place for whooping cranes. Indiana plays a vital role in the whooping crane re-introduction project as a migration stopover. Approximately 40 were spotted here last winter with as many as 20 spending the entire winter here in Indiana.
Hogsett said that any case is only as good as the facts that support it and this time, the facts were pretty solid but he reiterated, “how much joy can you feel when there is still another case with no evidence of closure. I can only go as far as I can without good facts from the public.” He added that his office will respond to other wildlife and environmental violations brought to their attention by th e public or someone else such as law enforcement.
Hogsett also commented that just because there’s a new priority placed on these types of cases right now, that might not be the case in a year or so.
“I serve at the pleasure of the President. A change in administration will also mean a change at the U.S. Attorney General’s office. My advice for people is mark that date on their calendar and if there is a change, then let their feelings be known about how they feel about these types of issues.”