What shapes an officer’s personality and molds his or her thinking when it comes to dealing with the public? It is individual contacts with the public that leaves lasting impressions on an officer’s judgment. The old man in this story was one of the people who helped shape my thinking for the rest of my career
I was just a rookie officer that August day in 1986 when I responded to a complaint that a subject had shot a Great Blue Heron. As I pulled into the driveway of the neatly kept brick ranch home, I could see a well cared for pond and a neatly mowed area surrounding it.
I walked up to the front door and a very polite old man answered my knock. I smiled and said that I was there regarding an incident which had taken place on his property. The polite man invited me in, and we sat down at his kitchen table. We talked for several minutes as I softened up my suspect and prepared for my upcoming interview.
I eased into my interrogation, and each time I asked an incriminating question, I got an incriminating answer. I then advised the suspect of his Miranda Rights (you know, the right to remain silent, have a lawyer present, and all that), and he easily agreed to speak with me. Now I was on a roll. I asked the suspect a series of questions: Were you home today? Did you see a heron on your pond? Do you own a gun? Each question was answered by responses like, “yes I sure did,” and “oh yes.” I was quite proud of my interview skills, especially for being a new officer. I reveled in my talent of being able to school the man and to get him to confess quickly. I confidently stated to the old man, OK you saw a heron on your pond, you own a shotgun, and you were mad at the heron for eating your fish.
Then I asked him, “Did you shoot the heron?” “Yes, I did,’’ was the man’s answer. “Alright, tell me what happened” I replied. He said that “the stupid fish-eating bird comes every day and eats all my fish, so I shot him.” Now I’m thinking, I just solved the case. Not so fast, though, I soon found out who was really getting schooled, and it was me.
I asked to see the dead bird and a smile came to the old man’s face. “You’re never going to find Jimmy Hoffa, (the UAW teamster boss), and you’re never going to find that heron.” The rookie officer was now not so confident. The old man was having fun with me. He told me that the Native Americans would call herons “fishing long legs” because they would clean out a fish pond like a vacuum cleans the carpet. I had everything I needed for my case, except for the bird’s body.
Then I made some decisions, which molded my way of thinking for the rest of my career. The man was 86 years old. The bird was eating his fish. The man was very cooperative, and he had paid his dues in life. He was a WWII veteran. He paid his taxes, and he took good care of his home and family. The totality of the circumstances made me realize that even though I probably would have won this case in court, there was not much to gain by seeking criminal charges. I smiled and shook the old man’s hand and thanked him for being so honest; then I told him not to shoot any more herons. Then I left his house. The old man died the next year and took the heron’s secret hiding place to the grave with him.
A Shotgun and a J Plug
Burl Ives was a legendary storyteller. O.J. Simpson was a great liar. A lot of politicians are real good at not telling the truth. Bernie Madoff was a scam artist. Storytelling, lying, hiding the truth, and deception are just a few of the tools poachers use in their attempt to get away with it. Law enforcement officers have heard all the excuses. Many violators get away with their crime because they are very good liars or possess the poker face trait. Many other poachers get away with their crime through the use of props and false information. Sometimes, us officers see through the lies and props.
Another beautiful October day found me driving the back roads near a portion of the Black River. I had spotted five salmon swimming around in a gravel shoal in the river earlier in the day. So, I hid my patrol car and found a hiding spot, so I could sort of babysit the spawning fish. Soon, a vehicle pulled up near the river, and two subjects gathered their tackle and headed down to the river. Their tackle is what got my attention.
One subject was carrying a short snagging style rod with a large J plug lure attached to his 60-pound test line. For someone who trolls the Great Lakes, a J-plug would be a normal type of lure, but on this spot, where the river was only 2 feet deep, I had to wonder what he was doing. What made me even more suspicious was that the other subject was carrying a 12-gauge single shot shotgun. I decided that the two subjects were worth following as they began their walk along the river. Sure enough, only minutes later, the subject with the shotgun raised his gun and shot a 20-pound salmon right in its side.
I watched as the other subject with the snagging rod ran to the river and grabbed the salmon. As the poachers looked all around for me, they set their plan in motion. The subject with the fishing rod hooked the J plug into the mouth of the fish and then cut his line about 1 foot from the salmon’s mouth. The other subject put the fish in his large landing net and the stumblebums started walking out toward their vehicle. I came out of my hiding spot and contacted the fishermen. Before I could say a word, the subjects began telling me their prearranged story.
One subject went on to say that he was fishing with his J plug and knew that salmon love big lures like his. He said he reeled in this large salmon, but then just as his friend was going to net the fish, his line broke. Luckily it fell into the net. “See, here is the proof, the lure is still in his mouth,” he said. I thought to myself not a bad plan (fable) except for one big detail. The big detail they forgot about was the 12-gauge slug hole in the side of the salmon. The subjects told me that someone else must have shot the fish right before it bit on their great lure that they were using.
I then told them that I saw the whole thing and that I was amused at their creative story.
I wonder if these two knuckleheads were as creative in their high school English writing class. I issued tickets for the illegal killing and possession of the salmon.
There are a lot of country songs about girls. Girls in trucks, girls fishing, girls drinking whiskey, girls shooting guns, and country girls all muddy and sweaty wearing cutoffs or tight jeans or cowboy boots. But I’ve never heard one song about country girls getting sprayed by a skunk and then going to a dance all dressed up.
Another October was upon me. As I patrolled in search of deer poachers, I observed an ORV coming toward me on Brown Road in Greenwood Township. I turned my flashers on and stopped the four-wheeler from the head-on position on the gravel road. There, in front of me were two high school girls all dressed up for their homecoming dance. As I walked toward the girls, I immediately smelled the distinct odor of a skunk. I then noticed a rope tied to the four-wheeler. This rope was attached to a Havahart live trap which contained a live skunk.
I tried not to laugh as the two country girls told me what they were doing. You see, their dad had a trap in their horse barn and caught the skunk, and he was going to kill it. So even though the dance was quickly approaching, the girls thought the skunk was really cute and while their dad was in the house, they decided to tow the trap down the road a couple of miles and let the skunk go. The sight of the dressed-up girls and the spraying skunk being dragged on the road made me laugh. I told the girls to drive home carefully after letting the skunk go and to enjoy their dance. I laughed as I drove away, and I wondered if the dad would be mad. I also wondered how many boys at the prom would wonder why the girls smelled like skunk. Maybe the dad knew what he was doing after all. He might have figured that the skunk smell might have kept the boys at the dance from getting too close to his daughters.
John Borkovich worked 27 years as a conservation officer with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in St. Clair County. Since retiring in 2012, the award-winning officer spends his time hunting and fishing and writing about his experiences on the job.