The Hunting of the Poacher King

Once, he rode the smoky ridges about the Umpqua River, a pack of baying hounds at his feet, the bawling of the terrified Ursus americanus ringing through the hills. Once, he was undisputed master of the kill. Once, Ray Hillsman slew a thousand bears. And then one man said, No more.

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     Walt Markee is a naturally curious guy, and it was Ray Hillsman's bad fortune that in the spring of 1996 Markee became interested in the black market for bear gallbladders. A 37-year-old sergeant in the special investigations unit of the Oregon State Police's fish and wildlife division, Markee had spent his early years in the OSP's narcotics unit and never lost his love for uncovering the intricacies of illegal trade. A solid plug of a man, he still carries himself like the Pac-Ten wrestling champion he was at Oregon State and looks strong enough to lift a truck. He keeps his hair close-cropped and favors clean jeans and checkered button-downs. He's terse about motivation. "I want my kids' kids to be able to drive up here and still see a buck in the middle of the road," he told me one day while driving through the Coast Range.

Markee grew up hunting elk with his father outside Tillamook, the little logging and dairy-farming town on the Oregon coast known for its cheddar cheese. An experienced tracker, he possesses an uncanny alertness to human habit and behavior. One morning he arranged to meet me at the OSP office in Eugene but became impatient. "You suppose he's a Marriott Courtyard kinda guy or a Best Western kinda guy?" he asked his partner, Senior Trooper Jeff Samuels. (Best Western, but I'd already checked out.) A few minutes before our appointment, I looked up from my Egg McMuffin to find the two men sitting across the booth from me. "Figured we'd find you here," Markee said.

The lawman's initial tip on the bear-parts racket came from a couple of state troopers who'd heard about somebody distributing gallbladders out of the Lebanon Day N Nite Market. Markee started making inquiries and pretty soon he got the lowdown on Hillsman in a memo from Richard Lane. Over the years, Lane had developed a strangely formal relationship with Hillsman, something akin to the old Warner Brothers cartoon in which Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf amiably punch the clock at the sheep meadow, chase each other around for eight hours, and then punch out. Lane knew in his gut that Hillsman was running bears, but he was too busy keeping anglers from hooking endangered sea-run cutthroat trout to go after him. Markee's job was to figure out where Ray Hillsman fit into the black market.

The most surprising thing about the black market for bear gallbladders is how small-time it often is. The typical "market" consists of a poacher, a middleman, and a user. The poacher may get $100 to $200 per bladder; the middleman, twice that. Because the gallbladder market is notoriously riddled with fakes—nearly half of the "bear" gallbladders seized by wildlife enforcement agencies and sent to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, actually come from pigs—the price can increase with authentication, such as a bear claw.

In traditional Asian medicine, the bile salts in a bear gallbladder are reputed to be a powerful tonic for a wide array of ailments, from liver and cardiac-related illnesses to carbuncles, gallstones, and sinus infections. "It's very costly and is often used in minute amounts in combination with other medicines," explains Jianxin Huang, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in Seattle who studied traditional medicine in China. Huang used bear bile only once while practicing in China, he says, to "treat a person with severe liver damage." The patient recovered. He's never used bear bile in the United States. (A synthetic form of one of the ursine bile salts, ursodeoxycholic acid, is found in the drug Actigall, which is used to dissolve gallstones.)

In this country, trade in bear parts tends to center around port cities with large Asian populations, such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. Although the Asiatic black bear population has been decimated by the trade in Asia, where a gallbladder can command a price of a thousand dollars or more, demand remains strong enough in bear-rich North America to draw illegal imports. "It's somewhat counterintuitive—there are more bear parts entering the country than leaving," notes Craig Hoover, a senior program officer at TRAFFIC North America, the wildlife-trade monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund. Gallbladders are usually dried to the size of prunes and stuffed in suitcases or shipped in boxes, but importers and exporters have gone to inventive lengths to get their merchandise across borders. In 1992, a South Korean smuggler was caught trying to move seven gallbladders out of Canada; he had dipped the organs in chocolate to try to fool the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

As Markee picked his way through the bear gallbladder market, he began to focus on Hillsman. In addition to Lane's memo, he'd received several anonymous tips about Hillsman on the department's TIP (Turn In a Poacher) hot line. "People wouldn't leave their names," he said. "They were scared of these guys." Hillsman's ring was a tight-knit bunch; it could take years for an undercover cop to penetrate it. If this turned out to be a racketeering case, as Markee suspected, it would have to be built on inside information. What he needed, desperately, was a "cooperating citizen," copspeak for informant.

 

Chuck Hartwig, who makes his living as a welder and general laborer, is a hunter himself—mostly deer and elk, though he bagged a black bear near the coast about ten years ago. He'd met Hillsman before, through the union, and had heard him talk. But one day in the fall of 1996, during a lunch break on a job repairing the underground steam lines at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Hillsman "started talking about all the bear he was shooting, killing cubs and such," Hartwig recalled. Hillsman's matter-of-fact account of the slaying of a mother bear and her cubs so rattled Hartwig that he told his wife, Judy, when he got home. She urged him to call the TIP line, and he did. He thought that would be the end of it.

When Walt Markee heard the message, he couldn't believe his luck: The caller had left his name and number. The two finally met face-to-face in the cop's Salem, Oregon, office in early November 1996. Markee asked for Hartwig's help but didn't sugarcoat the assignment.

"This is going to change your life forever," the cop warned. "You're gonna be labeled as a snitch. If you start this, you can't quit it. We need you as a witness to go to court, if it gets that far. Otherwise everything you tell us is just hearsay."

Hartwig drove home and talked it over with his wife. He had to weigh the risk to himself and Judy—these were backcountry good ol' boys with short tempers and long guns—against the havoc that Hillsman's ring was wreaking in the hills. At 58, he'd seen his share of the country as a journeyman construction worker, doing stints in Prudhoe Bay and Ketchikan, Alaska, in the seventies, and he didn't want to get bogged down in a police investigation. But then, as much as he loved hitching up his 35-foot fifth-wheel trailer and heading for the hills to hunt deer or fish for steelhead, he couldn't abide what Hillsman was doing. "I thought the animals deserved better than what they were getting," he said later. "I'm not an animal activist or anything like that, but you don't just go out and slaughter bears. It's breaking the law, and if you break the law you should pay for it."

It took Hartwig several weeks, and a number of frank conversations with Markee, to decide whether he could give up the next year of his life to catching Hillsman. But on New Year's Eve, he dialed Markee's number. "Walt? This is Chuck Hartwig," he said. "I'll go to court if you need me."

 

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