When I joined the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of Law Enforcement (LE) in 1979 to set up (I thought) a federal wildlife crime lab, I had a feeling that making a transition to working in wildlife law enforcement would give me a lot of new ideas for my fiction novels … and boy I was right.
The first few months in Washington DC went pretty much as expected: my first assigned task was to put together an evidence handling system (CSI, evidence preservation & collection, tags, forms, bags, etc.) for our agents and wildlife inspectors in the field … which they needed because LE was a relatively new entity, and which really wasn’t all that hard to do.
I just contacted the FBI crime lab director (a fellow I’d known for several years), asked him a complete set of the FBI’s evidence handling system (flow-charts, forms, tags, etc.) which he was more than happy to share … took one look at the hundreds of forms, charts and tags … proceeded to reduce it all down by a rough factor of ten (we only had about two hundred special agents compared to the FBI’s several thousand) … turned the much-simplified system over to our Training Branch then went to the Chief and then said “okay, got that done, when do we start building the lab?”
This was when I learned that 1) LE had no funding to construct a crime lab and hire staff; 2) it would be my job as the new Forensics Branch Chief to try to obtain the funding; and 3) oh, by the way, it’s illegal for a federal government employee to lobby Congress.
As might be expected, there are means by which such things happen [basically, I had to find non-governmental organizations (NGOs) willing to fight for our funding]; but, in the meantime, my boss decided that I needed to make myself useful within LE. So until we actually got the funding for the lab, I would function as a ‘Technical Agent’, traveling about the country with badge, gun and CSI/surveillance gear assisting our special agents with their investigative problems.
My first trip was to Louisiana where I met up with a couple of our agents who were making plans to “check duck hunters” the next morning. Would I like to go along? You bet!
So there I was the next morning at the office, fully equipped with waterproof gear, badge, gun, CSI kit and Kevlar vest, much to the amusement of the two agents.
“You really going to wear that vest today?” one of them asked.
I’m sure I blinked. “Yeah, of course I am, aren’t you?” I responded.
“Not to check a bunch of duck blinds,” the other agent laughed. “Don’t think we’re going to get into too many fire fights with them good ‘ol boys today.”
“Which is a good thing,” the first agent explained, “because the average duck hunter around here could put a bullet between your eyes at a fifty yards with his little bitty snake gun, no problem … so that vest really wouldn’t help you much … not to mention it gets pretty hot and humid out here,” he added helpfully.
So I put my vest in the back of their vehicle, feeling kind of naked after 12 years of pretty insistent police training, rode with the agents out to the hunting area, and then went out with them to check hunters for ‘over-the-limits’ and shotgun ‘plugs’ (tubular magazine restrictors that prevent the hunters from having too many rounds in their shotguns, for you non-duck-hunters). And to my absolute disbelief, the agents proceeded to approach the armed hunters and engage with them cheerfully without ever disarming them!!
I have to add here that a significant part of my earlier ‘police’ training involved the presence of a weapon (knife or firearm) in the hands of a suspect, and how I should react to that weapon immediately if not sooner. I had never, ever, been with a deputy sheriff or police officer who allowed a suspect to remain lethally armed for even a second … the basic option for said suspect being: drop the weapon now or die.
But this wasn’t ‘police’ work, as I quickly learned, and these duck hunters weren’t ‘suspects’ … or at least not in the sense that I understood the word ... and I really couldn’t do my job of helping them check hunters if I was going to keep on taking cover behind the nearest birdshot-resistant object every time we approached a new group of hunters.
It was clear that if I was going to continue to go out in the field with our agents, I was going to have to quickly ‘unlearn’ a lot of deeply-burned-in police training.
I got an even more astounding lesson in wildlife law enforcement work at four o’clock the next morning, where I found myself in an actual southern Louisiana swamp with those same agents, in almost total darkness, waiting for the poachers to show up at 4:30-5:00AM so that they could get their illegal early shooting in before the law-abiding duck hunters showed up to start shooting at 6:00AM.
So there I was, squatting down in hip/waist deep water, not at all happy about having to keep a wary eye out for curious alligators and snakes, when it occurred to me to ask the obvious question: “so, what kind of felony is it to shoot a duck before the season starts?”
One of the agents chuckled softly and whispered “it’s not a felony, bud, just a misdemeanor. All we’re going to do is give them a little violation notice.”
I was dumbfounded.
“You mean we’re sitting here in a [deleted] swamp, in the middle of the night, up to our ass in alligators and snakes, just to give some [deleted] a [deleted] ticket???”
“Shussh, not so loud, you’ll scare these guys off!” the agent whispered hurriedly.
Looking back, I think this was the moment that the idea for a new character began to crystallize in my head: a police homicide detective from San Diego named Henry Lightstone who is up in Alaska -- out of his jurisdiction and his comfort zone -- hunting for an outlaw motorcycle gang that had savagely beaten his partner when he unknowingly trips across a covert team of wildlife special agents focused on the same group of bad guys.
As I saw it, there were a lot of possibilities for Henry meeting up with a lot of interesting characters and getting himself in a lot of interesting trouble; but first, he was going to have to get used to doing things in a very different way.
To be continued …