Crimes of Passion

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Crimes of Passion

A glimpse into the covert world of rare butterfly collecting
By Caroline Alexander

There were few spectators present in the San Jose, California, courtroom to witness the sentencing of two convicted felons who faced up to $250,000 each in fines and five years in prison. A succession of prisoners dressed in baggy yellow prison wear was led into the courtroom prior to the case I was awaiting. Eventually, the names of Richard Skalski and Thomas Kral were called, and two convicts in civilian garb appeared before the judge. There was talk of the "special skills" abused by the men in the execution of their crime, of probation officers' reports, of dollar evaluation of the damage. But the nature of the felonies was not evident until the judge said, "And in terms of evaluation of the butterflies..." The two men were convicted butterfly poachers. The butterfly case had attracted considerable attention after the Department of Justice announced in December 1993 the indictment of three men--Skalski, Kral, and Marc Grinnell--for poaching and trafficking in butterflies that were protected by the Endangered Species Act as well as by state, federal, and Mexican wildlife regulations. The case, which concluded last August with some of the harshest sentences ever meted out to butterfly collectors, was widely viewed as a landmark in wildlife law and had been keenly followed by law-enforcement officials, conservationists, and lepidopterists. It is fair to say that the arcane world of butterfly collecting will never be the same.

Investigation into the poaching began as early as December 1991, when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service received a tip: Richard Skalski, a pest control operator at Stanford University, had allegedly collected the rare Papilio indra panamintensis from Death Valley National Monument and Papilio indra kaibabensis from Grand Canyon National Park. When Fish & Wildlife authorities raided Skalski's home on June 9, 1992, after an elaborate sting operation, they found a scene that was reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs.

"He had the rearing apparatus of the indra in his bedroom," said Fish & Wildlife entomologist Chris Nagano. "He grew the chrysalis on a paper towel, then cut around it and hung it from the rafters. When we went in, there were all those chrysalises hanging from the ceiling over the bed."

Skalski's practice had been to remove to a dark shed chrysalides due to metamorphose, so that the newly emerged butterflies would not see light, attempt to move around, and damage their wings. Once their wings had become pumped up with blood and hardened for flight, the butterflies were placed alive in glassine envelopes and put into the refrigerator to make them easier to preserve.

"When we opened the refrigerator, they slowly started to move," Nagano recalled. "There were--I want to say 100--a lot of butterflies."

The approximately 87 Kaibab swallowtails recovered from Skalski's home reputedly represented the world's largest collection of this butterfly. Also confiscated were some 400 letters to Skalski, which with correspondence confiscated from Kral and Grinnell revealed nearly a decade of trade in federally protected species. Above all, the correspondence was proof that the defendants had knowingly flaunted the law:

"I myself got caught collecting in Florida's Everglades N.P.," Kral wrote to Skalski in September 1984, "but got away each time, simply claiming ignorance of the laws."

"Myself, I use the BioQuip pocket net-- known as the 'National Park Special'--for these tricky spots," Kral wrote in another letter. "Myself, I pretend to be a birdwatcher when collecting adults on the wing, quickly stashing my net & using binoculars when someone approaches."

"Also have worked out a scheme to elude authorities," wrote Kral. "I will just pull out a book on Western plants & say I am a student identifying plants in the wild....

"Yours in mass murder, Tom."

The dazzling collections confiscated from Grinnell, Skalski, and Kral covered almost every illegal collecting contingency. Eleven of the 16 species of North American butterflies currently protected under the Endangered Species Act were represented, along with two threatened species and numerous butterflies afforded protection in national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges. Kral's collection alone contained 1,637 illegal butterflies. As one incredulous Fish & Wildlife officer said, it was "one of the finest collections I've ever seen, even counting in a museum."

Better than a museum, in some cases. The collections of the National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and the California Academy of Science can muster a grand total of 28 specimens of the rare Uncompahgre fritillary. Kral had 19. The same museums have no Panamint swallowtails, whereas Skalski had nine.

"If we didn't prosecute cases with this much evidence of violations of the Endangered Species Act," said U.S. Attorney Leland Altschuler, the lead prosecutor in the case, "we'd be derelict in our duty to enforce the conservation laws of the United States."

Skalski and Grinnell had entered guilty pleas early in the proceedings, but Kral had held out to the bitter end, until just a few days before jury selection. His insistence on his innocence of conscious criminal intent, combined with his outspoken, confrontational nature, accounted for his being the most visible of the three poachers. A real estate assessor in Tucson, Arizona, when not collecting butterflies, Kral had written letters to his congressman and the Lepidopterists' Society, and more recently he had hit the Internet. I had come to San Jose to witness something of the proceedings in his case, which was being tried by the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, but principally to meet Kral himself. Among other things, I was curious to see how he fit the psychological profile of a compulsive collector.

"The personality of someone who loves to possess things has a need for control," Donald Lunde, a forensic psychologist at Stanford University and an expert in obsessive-compulsive disorders, had told me. "Typically they collect things that are small compared to a human. By collecting, they overpower it. In the case of butterflies, there is the additional power of life and death." Lunde added that this need for control was more common in men than in women, and indeed the majority of butterfly collectors are male.

"With butterflies, you can take them home, you can possess them," one of this country's most renowned collectors had told me. "The purchase of a butterfly is not the same as the hunt, the long drive home, the pinning, the spreading of the wings. There is a whole process that draws the maniacal collector in. You cannot separate the pure love of collecting from the desire to obtain."

Up close, Thomas Kral, 31, was not what I had expected. Having heard stories about how he would interrupt the slide presentations and lectures of his Lepidopterists' Society chapter with sarcastic comments and questions, I was prepared for a belligerent, smart-ass personality. Instead, with dark hair neatly parted on the side, a dapper mustache, a tie and dark pants, he resembled a Victorian clerk. As we sat down to talk in a room in the San Jose courthouse, I noticed that his hands were shaking. Observing his badly cut fingernails, the stray threads of his shirt, his shiny new shoes and white socks--the telltale signs of bachelor self-reliance--I sensed that he was a young man very much on his own.

Tom Kral had brought to his session voluminous files, impeccably ordered and labeled. The compulsion for collecting and organizing data, which according to Lunde characterizes the collector personality, had in this instance served Kral well. Although represented by a very able and sympathetic lawyer, Kral had set himself the task of amassing documentary evidence to prove his contention that many of the wildlife laws he'd transgressed were unknown and unintelligible. But how did he justify the boastful letters confiscated by Fish & Wildlife?

Kral winced. "We thought if we got caught, they'll tell you not to do it again," he said, his troubled eyes focused in a gaze of unblinking intensity. "We thought it was like getting caught for speeding. We were far from the only people poaching. Those comments about mass murder and that? Best I can say is it's like watching the Three Stooges--like Moe saying, 'Larry, I'll moider you.'"

Kral had the look of a man who has woken up to find himself in a Kafka story--only as a netted, pinned, labeled specimen, not a live insect. He bolstered each point and counterpoint with an angry jab at one piece of evidence after another drawn from his bottomless bag of files: "Nobody knew that collecting in national forests was illegal. Read this: 'No written permits are required...'

"Are you reading this? 'New regulations for Mexican collections.' Nowhere does it say you have to have a Mexican license, because if you don't, it's a violation of United States law.

"Fish & Wildlife are the white elephants of law enforcement," Kral continued. "They don't get shot at, they don't crash in high-speed car chases, no one is going to firebomb their house. This is how they justify their cushy job: 'Yeah, look--we're rooting out these vicious butterfly collectors.' "

Kral started collecting butterflies at age six, when he found a polyphemus moth at the base of a maple tree in rural Wisconsin. "It was the joy of finding something I'd never seen before," he said. "I collected butterflies in my backyard. But basically, for me it's always been the joy of finding and documenting something new and different. Aesthetically, I like looking at butterflies; I find them beautiful."

After high school, Kral joined the army and then used his army scholarship to obtain bachelor's degrees in finance and accounting from the University of Wisconsin. He chose not to study entomology, believing it would kill the enjoyment he derived from his hobby. "I had seen enough entomologists driving rusty old cars," he said wryly. "Very few people are able to make a living in this profession."

Nonetheless, he devoted extraordinary time and energy to his passion. Nagano spoke of Kral's collecting trips with awe: "Kral writes in one letter how he went out with 20,000 envelopes and only filled 9,000. Nine thousand! He must have been like a machine!"

In 1988, as he was on course to go to graduate school, Kral's life was turned upside down. "My father retired in 1988 after a divorce," said Kral, his voice faltering. "He could no longer live in the same state as my mother. So he says, 'I'm only living for you now, Tom.'" Suddenly, tears flooded Kral's eyes. "We decided to move to Tucson so that I could collect and my father would be warm," he continued, talking with furious persistence, as if he would distract attention from the tears coursing down his face.

In May 1992 Kral's father was diagnosed with bone cancer, and the next month Fish & Wildlife raided their house. Photographs of the raid show Tom Kral unshaven, disheveled, looking like a desperado after having returned from an arduous collecting trip, voluble even in the pictures, caught in midsentence. They also inadvertently captured details of his domestic life--his books, bags of cat food in the corner, piles of boxes, and collecting envelopes. For 11 hours the officials went through Kral's world-class collection, extracting all suspicious specimens.

"They had us in house arrest," said Kral, squeezing the words out. "Within one week, my father got really sick. He just never recovered. And all this time the investigation was going on, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. So my father died, and I'm on my own."

From a strictly legal point of view, the case of the butterfly bust was uncomplicated: Conservation laws had been repeatedly and consciously transgressed. But the background to these seemingly simple laws is fraught with byzantine complexity, capable of enmeshing many an unsuspecting entomologist. At the heart of the butterfly case lies a vilified piece of legislation called the Lacey Act. Instituted in 1900 to facilitate the monitoring of international agricultural traffic, the act essentially makes the violation of local wildlife laws a federal offense. Similarly, it is a felony under federal law to bring any insect from many countries into the United States.

"If a spider lurks in your bunch of bananas from Honduras, you are a felony violator of the Lacey Act," a Colorado collector wrote in a fulminating newsletter. "The Lacey Act would require the jailing of everyone who carried a carcass of a splattered grasshopper or fly out of a Park on his windshield or radiator."

Kral's contention that prior to his indictment the Lacey Act was unknown was borne out by every collector with whom I spoke--virtually all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, which seemed to substantiate Kral's insistence that "anyone who's swung a net in this country is a criminal."

"This whole case about the butterflies is a peculiar one," said one prominent professional entomologist. "For most people who are interested in butterflies, the uppermost issue is habitat. This is such a crazy use of funds--tax money that could be spent on habitat conservation rather than cops and robbers."

Although their case is the most prominent, Kral, Skalski, and Grinnell are not the only collectors to have run afoul of the Fish & Wildlife Service. Last July a commercial dealer named Charles Kondor was sentenced to five months in prison in Wisconsin. The indictment that same month of a collector in Texas, John William Kemner, who specialized in Mexican butterflies, is rumored to implicate some of the most important museums in the country, from the Smithsonian on down. Butterfly poaching and smuggling cases have been investigated independently in Britain, India, and China, where a pair of alpine silks was reportedly sold on the Japanese market for $37,000.

"I would have had a lot more respect for the prosecution and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had they just gone after the national park violations, which were honestly known violations," said Marc Grinnell. "I never envisioned being hit with one felony conspiracy count punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine."

John Mendoza, the special agent who set up the sting that netted the three poachers, exudes the laid-back confidence of a man built like a linebacker. In preparation for this case, Mendoza had joined the Lepidopterists' Society under the assumed name of John Lesca and spent a couple of years undercover attending meetings. It was he who set up Skalski, writing a letter offering to purchase a subspecies of indra found in Grand Canyon National Park. Arrangements were made for Mendoza's "brother-in-law" to pick the specimens up from Skalski's home. "The brother-in-law was me," said Mendoza.

In tone and substance the letter could have passed for any one of the letters confiscated from the poachers. "Dear Rich: Yes! Please check with your dealer friend to see if he still has your ex-pupae Papilio indra kaibabensis. I'm very interested in purchasing an A-1 papered pair with complete collecting data.... I'd also be interested in learning about the ecology of this subspecies: are the adults hard to collect? Is it true that the males are extremely territorial and highly pugnacious?"

The mastermind behind the operation was Chris Nagano. Soft-spoken and reticent, Nagano had once been a collector himself, belonging to the Lepidopterists' Society for many years. His expertise had been in monarch butterflies and the mystery of their seasonal migration. When he got the job with Fish & Wildlife in 1989, he gave up the research project he had been involved with so as to avoid a conflict of interest he evidently already saw down the road.

On a beautiful late-spring day, Nagano drove me to the San Bruno hills, south of San Francisco, to view some forbidden collecting sites. Rolling, dunelike, and covered with golden grass, the hills formed a long-ranging and welcome backdrop to the otherwise relentlessly developed landscape. Orange poppies and purple owl's clover abounded, precious foodstuff of Euphydryas editha bayensis, or the bay checkerspot. It is thanks to the protected status of the butterfly's habitat that these golden hills have escaped the developers' clutches. United Technologies, one of the world's biggest defense organizations, produces rockets nearby and has been hoping to build a service road through this territory. "But," said Nagano, "they are concerned about the impact the butterfly might have on them." The whole butterfly issue is not without its delicious ironies.

In the town of Burlingame, Nagano gave me a tour of the Fish & Wildlife office where most of the confiscated butterflies were being stored. Expecting to see only an array of colorful collecting cabinets, I was startled to find shelves stocked floor to ceiling with body parts of animals from around the world: leopard skins, turtles, bottled snakes, Nigerian handbags made from the bodies of contorted crocodiles, clumsily stuffed mouse deer (teeth bared), birds rampant (wings spread), a crate stuffed with a polar bear skin--in short, a camphor-scented monument to the banality of the human imagination.

Away in one corner was the evidence I had come to see: a stack of display cases full of row upon row of neatly pinned butterflies, which represented the only objects in the room on which I could fix my attention without disgust. Indeed, they were enticingly beautiful: The translucent delicacy of the snowy parnassus butterflies, the lobe-winged and velvety swallowtails--it was difficult to register that these too were dead animals.

Each butterfly was neatly labeled with a minuscule tag, and I marveled at the almost surgical precision with which each specimen had been presented. Nagano looked momentarily bashful and explained that this was in fact his handiwork; as a former collector, his old skills had been put to good use.

"If you get a chance to go to Tom Kral's home and see his collection, you should take it," Nagano told me later. The 1,600 or so butterflies confiscated from Kral represented only 2 percent of his collection. "Every butterfly has a story; he knows where he caught it, when."

Nagano was curious about my conversation with Kral. "Did you get a sense that Kral realized how serious this was?" Nagano asked. "That he is looking at time? That as a felon, he can't vote, can't carry firearms, can't be bonded, can't hold a civil service job?" I replied that I thought Kral knew all this, but I thought that none of the collectors had known about the Lacey Act and its implications.

"No," said Nagano almost sorrowfully. "I don't think they realized the seriousness of it."

In the aftermath of the San Jose case, collectors are reportedly mislabeling, hiding, or even destroying their specimens in fear of being caught by what they call the "butterfly gestapo." J. Benjamin Ziegler, a spokesman for the International Scientific Collectors Association, protested in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt that the case has "cast a chilling pall over the conduct of much lepidopterological science." Ziegler pointed out that at present the same legislation applies to vertebrates and invertebrates alike, although their breeding rates differ wildly. Furthermore, there is no evidence that any insect population has ever been collected to extinction.

Others salute this shakeup, claiming that the whole concept of collecting is a relic of a bygone age. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, an organization that promotes butterfly watching, draws parallels between the birders of old and the butterfly collectors of today. "The bird people back in the twenties thought the only way you could identify species and study them was by shooting them," he said. He anticipates that butterfly identification will come to rely more on sightings and photography than on the killing and collection of specimens.

Everyone with an interest in the poaching case, from law-enforcement officials to the most rabidly compulsive collector, agrees on one thing: that without habitat protection, all the regulations in the world will not save a butterfly species. Insects account for over 90 percent of the planet's living organisms, and the most studied--and visible--of these are butterflies. It is no exaggeration to say that butterflies in some ways symbolize the planet's environmental health. And it is a sad reality of modern life that even a creature as free as a butterfly must be protected.

The case of the butterfly poachers concluded on August 1, 1995, with the sentencing of Skalski and Kral. Grinnell, deemed the least culpable, had received his sentence on April 12: a $3,000 fine, 100 hours of community service, and three years' probation. Skalski was sentenced to five months of part-time imprisonment, five months in a halfway house, $3,000 in fines, and three years' probation. Kral received a reduced sentence of 300 hours of community service, $3,000 in fines, and three years' probation on the grounds that he showed "extraordinary acceptance of responsibility" and that the laws were "confusing." It was determined that Kral's community service should consist of "educational activities, directed toward informing society about the National Wildlife Protection Laws."

At the end of our interview, Kral and I walked out of the federal courthouse into the streets of San Jose. He faced an 11-hour drive home and was worried because the clutch on his truck was going. While I spoke to him, his harried expression suddenly lightened so visibly that I spun around to see what had engaged him. Floating high above the ornamental shrubs, there dipped and bobbed a yellow and black striped butterfly.

"Papilio rutulus," said Kral. "The tiger swallowtail." He turned glumly back to me. "Yes, you were saying?"

Caroline Alexander's book Battle's End: A Seminole Football Team Revisited has just been published by Knopf.

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