Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Curses! True crime, with a moose

This just in from the D.O.W. It's kinda funny... and kinda not.


In 2002, Charles Pedraza was hunting elk in the mountains of south-central Colorado when he shot a bull moose. For almost four years he thought he got away with it. But on Aug. 9 he had his day of reckoning when a Chaffee County judge ordered him to pay $11,391 for poaching.

Several factors helped the Colorado Division of Wildlife solve the case. There was high-tech DNA lab work, a couple of anonymous tips, good, old-fashioned investigative work and the help of a bear who unknowingly dug up evidence the poacher buried when he was trying to hide his crime.

Colorado District Wildlife Manager Ron Dobson knew that an occasional moose wandered the hills in his district, but there are only a handful of areas where moose are found in high enough numbers to warrant a hunting season.

The trail that connected Charles Pedraza to the moose skull found by Dobson began in the summer of 2003 when a Chaffee County resident called Ron to tell him about an unusual skull laying out in the open above the Mary Murphy Mine site up on Pomeroy Gulch. Dobson found the skull and recognized it as a moose with the antlers cut off. There were teeth marks on the skull and bear scat nearby. Dobson began looking around and found a black plastic trash bag with bits and pieces of bone fragments and moose hair that apparently had been dug up by a bear.

“It was obvious to me, that whoever killed the moose went to a great deal of trouble to conceal the crime by burying portions of the hide and skull,” said Dobson.

If it hadn’t been for the bear, the evidence might still be buried. Dobson didn’t have much to go on, but he took photographs and kept the skull as evidence in the event he might get a lead someday. That day came a couple of years later when an anonymous tipster called the “Operation Game Thief” hotline with information that Charles Pedraza illegally shot a moose during the 3rd rifle elk season in 2002. What puzzled officers was that the tipster said the poaching incident took place near Walden – 200 miles away. A search of Colorado hunting license records indicated Pedraza had a cow elk license for the Pomeroy Gulch area, but was never issued a moose hunting license.

Wildlife officers attempted to contact Pedraza but found out the suspect had moved from Colorado Springs to Oshkosh, Wisc. So the DOW enlisted the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who sent an agent in Wisconsin to talk with Pedraza. During a recorded interview in August of 2005, Pedraza was asked if he knew anything. He confessed to shooting a bull moose on Pomeroy Gulch but claimed it was an accident. Pedraza told the investigator he didn’t report it because he was afraid the DOW wouldn’t let him keep the meat so he removed the hide and antlers and then quartered the moose and carried most of it out before burying the legs and skull.

Dobson knew he had a good case, but he still needed a major piece of evidence to cement the deal, so he got a search warrant. Dobson opened the storage unit and found a moose pelt and photos that put Pedraza at the scene of the crime. Dobson sent samples to a lab in Wyoming to run a DNA test. Bingo. The DNA from the hide in the storage shed and the skull Dobson found on the hillside were a perfect match. With his new found evidence, Dobson phoned Pedraza at his home in Wisconsin in December of 2005 and made arrangements for Pedraza to return to Colorado to turn himself in.

“This case is a good example of how a citizen’s tip can be combined with old-fashioned detective work and high-tech DNA evidence can solve a cold case,” said Dobson. Once again during this year’s hunting seasons wildlife officers will ramp up patrols to watch for poachers. But it is not the game wardens alone who will be watching. In today’s age of cell phones and satellites, every citizen out there can help solve poaching cases.

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