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Special Investigations Unit Crucial to DNR's Law Enforcement Division

November 22, 2006

The recent case that culminated in a major bust of an illegal commercial use of the state's resources in the Upper Peninsula began simply enough. A person noticed something unusual and instead of letting it go, he reported it to the DNR's Report All Poaching hotline. A few days later, arrests were the result.

Conservation Officers, Special Investigation unit at Mackinac BridgeBut, in between the first whisper of the illegal activity taking place on a U.P. river and the arrests, which took place at the Mackinac Bridge, the DNR's Law Enforcement Division utilized a very sophisticated and well-practiced approach to ensure the evidence was clear and all legal hurdles were successfully cleared.

Most conservation officers are those men and women in green that we most often see in Michigan's woods and fields and on the water. Behind the scenes, however, is a specialized and highly trained unit of detectives who often are utilized when it comes to investigations that involve the commercial use of the state's resources.

"It is an outstanding example of one of the reasons we train as we do at the (officer) academy," said LED Captain Curt Bacon. "It works."

Officer recruits are trained diligently in how to handle a so-called takedown that occurred earlier this month in Mackinac County. Their training paid off.

Lt. Dave Davis oversees the DNR's Special Investigation unit and the Commercial Fish Enforcement unit. Both focus on commercialization of fish and game.

"These special units have been around since the 1980s," Davis said, "and they are available for our field officers to access any time. We think of the officers in these units as specialists focusing on very specific natural resource law enforcement issues."

A conservation officer in Mackinac County was the first to be given information that a tip had been called in to the RAP hotline. According to the tip, a large scale harvest of salmon by unlawful means on a closed stream was taking place that also included the sale of large quantities of these fish. However, because of the area involved, local COs initially were skeptical of the information. But a couple of officers from other districts were contacted, and, in an undercover capacity, quickly infiltrated the salmon-taking operation, confirming the validity of the complaint.

The field officers contacted the Special Investigation unit. The detectives, also working undercover, were able to infiltrate the group of poachers, successfully establishing themselves with the perpetrators. There, the detectives learned how the operation was being run and what the plans were to move the illegally taken salmon to market.

Armed with the information, the detectives contacted the area officers, who planned and staged a takedown at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge as the poachers were trying to head south with their take. Because the detectives had all the critical information and were able to pass that along to the officers, the COs were there, ready and waiting to pull over the truck carrying the salmon and its passengers, arresting the poachers on the spot and confiscating the illegally taken salmon.

The DNR's Special Investigation unit consists of a staff sergeant and four detectives who are trained conservation officers who have shown interest and ability to work in a more in-depth investigative capacity.

"Some officers are naturals when it comes to being able to infiltrate and get information on illegal operations," Davis said. "These specially trained officers must be great actors, be able to engage people involved in illegal operations to gain their trust, and have excellent listening and communication skills."

The unit's goal is to assist the field personnel, and to bring into the mix advanced communication and technological skills. The detectives also are there to spell off local officers on long-term surveillance.

But in the case of the salmon poaching ring in Mackinac County, no long-term effort was required. Because of precise coordinating, thorough training and excellent execution, two residents of North Carolina were apprehended while en route to their home state with a load of illegally taken salmon for commercial sale.

Conservation Officers, Special Investigation with items confiscated at Mackinac BridgeThe sting operation netted 325 pounds of fish. The central figure in the scheme also was apprehended at his place of business, which was the location for the illegal fishing. The three defendants face about 16 charges in the case. In addition to the seizure of the fish, the items taken into legal possession included a firearm, spear, net, gaff and a chest freezer used to facilitate the interstate shipment of the fish.

"Field officers always are stretched to the limit because of their workload, the large area each officer has to cover physically, and the concentration of problems that occur," Davis said. "We can provide the shoe leather to make these cases easier to bring to significant resolution."

Davis and his team also train field officers to help out with special projects and temporary investigatory needs. These temporary investigators often form the pool for future candidates for this important special unit of the DNR.

"I am very proud of the execution of this operation," LED Chief Alan Marble said, "but I am especially proud that we take the time and effort to integrate the investigative aspect into our operations. It makes us a complete, professional operation, and something Michigan can take great pride in, knowing that we are always there, ready to protect the resource."

Any person with information about any suspicious and unlawful activity related to Michigan's natural resources is encouraged to contact the RAP hotline at (800) 292-7800. Information can be provided anonymously.

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