A state wildlife agent goes undercover to nab a gang of hunters who bragged of illegally shooting dozens of deer, cougars, elk and bobcats.
The body count began the moment Tom Sharpe met Mick Gordon.
When Sharpe stepped from his pickup, he found four men and a boy in the garage of Gordon’s Longview duplex stripping the skin from a big bull elk.
Gordon retrieved a hunting dog Sharpe was thinking about buying, and they drove toward the woods to test the dog.
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Along the way, Gordon bragged that he killed lots of bears, cougars and bobcats. He shot four or five bull elk a year. A few months earlier he’d poached a big cougar. He and a buddy tossed dynamite into a creek to kill fish.
Gordon declared that “he had poached everything there was to poach.”
Shortly after midnight, they turned back, having killed nothing that day. But Gordon invited Sharpe to come hunting again.
Gordon wouldn’t have been so welcoming if he’d known who Sharpe really was: an undercover wildlife cop.
The investigation that started in 2006 finally ended in November, when the last of four defendants — including Gordon — pleaded guilty to poaching-related charges in Lewis County.
Gordon, a one-time hospital nurse who is now serving 13 months in prison, declined to comment. But the state Fish and Wildlife Department recently opened its files from the investigation, which included the account of Sharpe’s first meeting with Gordon. The case is notable for its colorful characters, the extensive use of an undercover officer, the fact that jail sentences were handed down in a case where people poached for fun rather than profit, and the scale of wanton carnage claimed by a group of Southwest Washington men.
Nothing, it seemed, was too big or too small for the hunters, who took wildlife both legally and illegally. Their claimed victims included house cats, bobcats, mountain lions, elk, deer, bears, a turkey vulture, fish and one of their own hunting dogs.
They even had a name for their group: They called themselves the “Kill ‘Em All Boyz.”
Started with a tip
Rumors of a poaching ring had been circulating in Southwest Washington when Fish and Wildlife got a phone call with a tip in late 2006. Mick Gordon was trying to sell a hunting dog, and he was boasting about his poaching prowess.
The tipster offered a tantalizing possibility. Could a wildlife cop posing as someone interested in buying the dog get inside this group of hunters?
Poaching is hard to prove. The crimes happen far from witnesses. Evidence is easily destroyed.
Wildlife officials can’t even say how much of a toll poaching takes on the state’s animals. Officials worry intensive poaching can scramble local ecosystems and steal from a public resource. One major study, in the early 1990s, estimated 10 percent of elk around Mount St. Helens were poached.
This case was a rare opening into the tight-knit world of hound hunters, people who use dogs to track game. These hunters have been squeezed to the margins by a state initiative confining legal hound hunting to small game like raccoons, and very limited hunts for bear and cougar.
Gordon “has an extremely ‘high on me’ type of personality that is easily manipulated with some compliments,” one wildlife cop wrote in the investigation files.
So it was decided. The state’s main undercover wildlife officer would try to infiltrate the group.
To charm his way in, Tom Sharpe — a fake name used by the agent — told Gordon he was a ship captain who periodically sailed rich people’s yachts from port to port and had spare time to hunt. The Times is not using the agent’s real name at the request of Fish and Wildlife Department officials, out of concern it could compromise current investigations.
To pump up his poaching credentials, Sharpe told Gordon he was going hunting in Alaska. Then later, he called Gordon and told him he had poached a grizzly bear there, and showed photos of himself with a dead grizzly — one that had been killed by someone else in Alaska.
The hook was set. Gordon marveled to one person about what a crazy, hard-core hunter Tom was, according to investigative records.
Investigators zeroed in on Gordon as the leader of the loosely organized group. A stocky 36-year-old who grew up in northern Idaho, he was portrayed as vulgar and boastful in detailed notes from the undercover agent.
He regaled Sharpe with stories of his sexual exploits and his poaching. He declared his hatred of police, vowing at one point that he wanted to “shoot every cop that he sees in the face,” according to the agent’s notes.
Gordon was an avid hunter, rounding up friends to join him and driving dirt roads late into the night. He bragged of tricking an old lady into giving him three house cats, then killing them while training his dogs.
He was also studying to be a nurse, became licensed during the poaching investigation and got a job at Providence Centralia Hospital.
On Jan. 20, 2007, Sharpe went out with several of the Kill ‘Em All Boyz. According to his notes, they tried to live up to their name.
Gordon was joined by local acquaintances Brian Hall, the 38-year-old manager of his family’s Longview temp agency; Joe Dills, a 20-year-old logger; and a mentally disabled man named Dan.
Piled into two trucks, they headed to some woods close to the Oregon border. They broke through gates on private timberland roads, using keys they’d acquired and a homemade metal pry bar nicknamed the “permission slip.”
With the hounds riding in back, they cruised down dirt roads, waiting for the dogs to catch the scent of an animal. But they found little.
Finally, one of Gordon’s dogs, Copper, bolted from the truck. The men let the other dogs loose before they realized Copper had found a porcupine
The hunters started delivering jolts of electricity to the dogs through remote-controlled collars used to scare the animals away from something.
But at the end of a long, fruitless day of hunting, the dogs full of porcupine quills, Gordon lost his temper, according to the undercover agent. Instead of a few quick jolts, Gordon kept his finger down on the shock button.
Then he got a second shock collar and strapped it around the dog’s torso, near its groin.
For roughly three minutes, Gordon shocked and kicked the dog so ferociously the agent feared it would die, according to the records.
Two of Gordon’s friends at the scene dispute that account. Gordon wrote a confession saying he strapped the second collar around the dog and kicked it. However, Hall said it was a stray kick, not a severe beating.
“No way I would let someone stomp and kick on a dog when I was standing there,” Hall said in an interview.
But Sharpe, also in an interview, recalled that he desperately wanted to stop the beating. He decided that with a group of armed men thinking he was a hardened poacher, he’d be putting his life in jeopardy to intervene.
“That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’ve been around a long time,” Sharpe said. “Did it repulse me what I saw being done to the dog? Yes. Did I want to go down with the dog? No.”
Eventually Gordon stopped beating Copper, according to the agent. But the hunting was over for the night.
The dog died within two weeks.
Gordon’s friends say they think porcupine quills caused the fatal injury. They say Gordon took the dog to a doctor but couldn’t afford to pay for the treatment. Gordon told Sharpe the dog died from “internal injuries,” according to the agent’s notes.
Not much success
Despite the Kill ‘Em All Boyz name, the group killed very little in front of Sharpe.
One day in the Mount St. Helens foothills, the dogs treed a bobcat, which two of the hunters shot. Dills fired a shotgun at a turkey vulture sitting in a tree, according to investigative records. Sharpe shot a bobcat when Gordon insisted he pull the trigger. Gordon and Dills said they shot a black bear when Sharpe wasn’t with them. A wildlife officer later found the decomposing carcass.
But the agent heard plenty of stories during his nine hunting trips. All told, the Kill ‘Em All Boyz claimed to have killed dozens of animals, many illegally, in a years-long spree extending to Oregon, Idaho and much of Southwest Washington, according to the agent’s notes. The claimed death toll included 100 elk, at least a dozen bears and more than 50 cougars and bobcats.
Once, after breaking through a timber-company gate to hunt, Sharpe mentioned that they didn’t have to worry about game wardens because he’d heard they were all investigating people using traps to catch moles.
“What the (expletive) is wrong with those idiots?” Gordon replied, according to the agent’s notes. “This is the (expletive) they should be working — guys like us.”
In June 2007, after eight months undercover, the wildlife police decided it was time to end the charade.
Within minutes of his arrest, Gordon was offering to talk, according to Lt. Ed Volz, the officer who ran the sting.
Gordon quickly wrote a confession in which he admitted to poaching deer, a bear and a cougar, and breaking locks to road gates. He implicated Dills and another friend, Adam Lee, in a variety of crimes.
Four men eventually pleaded guilty to a variety of hunting and trespassing charges, many of them misdemeanors. Hall got 60 days in jail. Dills got 90 days. Lee got a month in jail. Gordon received the stiffest sentence — 13 months in state prison. Lee and Gordon lost their hunting privileges for life. Gordon’s nursing license also was suspended
Dills and Hall, the two defendants who agreed to interviews, said despite the guilty pleas, the most gruesome details were exaggerations by the undercover agent.
They said Gordon’s claims of widespread poaching were just bragging.
“I’m not saying that we didn’t commit the crimes. But it was made to look like we were really, really bad people, and we’re not that way,” Dills said.
While most of the men got little jail time, Volz said he considers the case a success. It’s hard to excite judges and prosecutors about any but the most extreme poaching cases, he said. Gordon’s prison sentence came mostly for beating his dog, not for illegally killing wildlife.
Gordon, who entered prison in November, could be released as soon as May if he’s deemed a well-behaved inmate.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org