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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   If you're looking to get lost, you couldn't ask for better land than the Umpqua River territory of southwestern Oregon. Stretching out in the upper half of Douglas County, the Umpqua is a primal woodland made up of hundreds of square miles of razorback ridges crisscrossed by logging roads that wind through woods thick with salmonberry bushes, alders, blackberry bushes, and "reprod," the forestry term for saplings that reclaim swaths of clearcut. The land was never really tamed; most early settlers gave it their best shot for a generation or two, signed over the homestead to a timber company, and retreated inland to the farmable loam of the Willamette Valley. These days, the Umpqua is rich with what law enforcement officers tactfully call "subculture." When the hippies went back to the land in the 1970s, many of them found their space in these hills. The Rainbow Family, an aging hippie commune, still keeps a farm over in the Elk Creek area, not far from the town of Drain. Robert Leo Heilman, author of Overstory-Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, is a local bard who knows well both the weirdness and the down-home decency of Douglas County; he once wrote that the area "has a reputation, when people bother to think of it at all, of being a redneck cultural backwater, the home of hillbillies, crackpot secessionists, and Holy Roller revivalism."

This was the land over which Ray Hillsman reigned. Most Saturday mornings he'd wake before dawn, load his hounds in the back of his Toyota pickup, and hit the road while it was still dark. He lived in Brownsville, a farming town 25 miles north of Eugene, and often he'd hook up with his cronies at Big's Hi-Yu-He-He Drive-In or Nan's Country Café on Highway 126 west of the city before convoying into Umpqua country. Those who hunted with him often imitated him right down to his choice of rig. Some mornings the diner lot was full of nothing but Toyotas with dog boxes—Hillsman's '86 Toyota pickup parked next to the '91 Toyota of Joe Lagler and the '95 Toyota of Spencer Farrell. Once in a while, a uniformed state trooper would stop by the hounders' table for a friendly chat. "What might you gentlemen be hunting today?" he'd say, and Hillsman would smile: "Coyotes." "Good answer," the trooper would reply, giving Hillsman a you-know-that-I-know-that-you're-full-of-shit smile.

"Hound people are like a bunch of Okies, I guess you would say," Hillsman once said. "We all join together, good old boys, sit down at the campfire, maybe take a snort of whiskey, and tell lies."

There's no such thing as a halfhearted houndsman. The dogs require too much training, food, and vet care to allow anyone to just dabble in the sport. Most houndsmen pick it up from their fathers, continuing a hunting tradition that once was part of the fabric of rural America but lately has been demonized by animal rights advocates as cruel and unsporting. In 1994, by a slim 52 percent majority, the citizens of Oregon banned the use of hounds to hunt bear and cougar. You can still go after them without dogs, but it requires a permit, and hunters are limited to one bear a year. (Though, as one hounder moaned, "How many times have you just stumbled across a bear?") In places like the Umpqua, houndsmen and nonhunters alike still bristle at the vote. "Pretty soon they'll be telling us we can't fish no more, neither," one experienced Oregon hounder complained. "Too cruel to the fish."

"In season" had never meant much to Ray Hillsman and his crew. Once they hit the mountains, they'd drive the ridgetops with their best strike dogs on top of the dog boxes, waiting to hear the throaty bay that let them know they'd run across a big whiff of eau de ursus. Hillsman would take one road, Lagler another, Farrell another. When somebody's dog struck, he'd call the others on the CB radio. (Hillsman's handle was "Rover.") Once they determined the direction of the bear, they'd release the hounds—called "the turn," as in "turn 'em loose"—and spend the rest of the morning chasing the baying pack.

"Here was the problem," said Walt Markee, sitting in his office, a mounted deer and cougar on display. "We had an idea of where these guys were hunting, but we didn't know exactly where every time. And they're running all over the place. We couldn't follow them without tripping over 'em."

 

By the spring of 1997, Markee had gotten the go-ahead from his superiors to set up an official investigation of Hillsman's bear poaching ring. Now the cop asked his informant to start taping his conversations with Hillsman. Hartwig knew Hillsman well enough from various construction jobs that he could call him up and get him jawing about work, hunting, whatever. The guy just liked to talk. The thing Hartwig wanted to avoid—for now, at least—was going out on a hunt with Hillsman. Markee didn't want to put his key witness in harm's way, but he had to use Hartwig to draw Hillsman out about his hunting plans. As the transcripts of their calls show, Hillsman would talk himself right into jail if you let him, and that's pretty much what he did.

April 17, 1997:

Hartwig: "Uh, you going to try to go out this weekend then?"

Hillsman: "Yeah. I'm going out Saturday and—"

"Down at that same place or what?"

"Yeah, down about there..."

"Like on...on...on a bear that size, was the gall really big on them fuckers or what?"

"...It varies. That one, uh, shot right through and busted it."

"Oh, it did?"

"Yeah!"

"So you didn't get nothing for that gall?"

"No, nothing."

Once Hartwig relayed Hillsman's weekend hunting plans, Markee and another investigator would drive through the night to find a high mountain clearing from which they could monitor channel 25, the poaching crew's CB frequency. When Hillsman's gang showed up, usually around 6 a.m., the OSP detectives would already be in position, roasting hot dogs for breakfast, their tape recorder propped up against the CB. For 12 months Markee, Jeff Samuels, and another senior trooper, Dave Owren, spent nearly every weekend in the mountains listening to Hillsman's dogs howl, tracking his crew's movements, and searching for the bodies of the bears he killed. Some days they'd sit for hours, listening to a whole lot of nothing. As savvy a tracker as he was, Hillsman never smelled the cops on his own trail—though he did run smack-dab into them once.

"We set up there one day way high on a ridge overlooking Wassen Creek," Markee said, recalling one Saturday in June 1997. "Hillsman's hunting below us, and all of a sudden he spots our tire tracks." The cops managed to record the whole exchange.

"Saw these tracks here in the mud," Hillsman radioed to Lagler. "I'd say it's another hunter, looks like. Little stock tires, like off a Toyota or something.... I think somebody's ahead of me. I'm gonna run out here to see if I'm right or wrong."

Markee and Owren shot each other oh-shit looks and scrambled. Owren switched the CB off channel 25 and hid the tape recorder while Markee reached for his spotting scope. Just as he grabbed it, Hillsman's truck burst through the brush and circled their campsite.

"What'n the hell are you guys doing up here?" Hillsman shouted.

"Trying to spot some elk," said Markee.

The two men looked each other squarely in the eye and lied for 90 tense seconds before Joe Lagler's voice crackled in on the CB: "Hey, Ray! My dogs just struck!"

"Hey, I gotta go!" Hillsman said. "Good luck!"

Hillsman ignored his instincts and for the next 11 months remained blind to any sign that the cops were watching him. "We worried every day that Hillsman would find out," Markee said. "We were one phone call away from a heart attack."

Later that afternoon, watching from that same clearing above Wassen Creek, Markee caught a break. He spied Hillsman's truck flashing through a recent timber cut and, looking down at his watch, counted the seconds until he heard the engine shut off. Twenty minutes later, he and Owren heard a high-power rifle shot and then two smaller pops. After Hillsman and his boys drove off, the cops met up with Richard Lane. As a senior game officer, Lane had patrolled 2,000 square miles of Umpqua drainage for the last 12 years; he may have been the only man alive who knew the back roads better than Hillsman. The three of them used Markee's time mark to find where Hillsman's Toyota had pulled off the road and spread out into the thick brush to search for the carcass. "When you're tracking someone in there, it's not like following footsteps down the beach," Markee explained. "It's a broken stick here, a foot track there, some bent grass."

When they found the bear, a yearling cub, it was inside out. Its abdomen had been sliced open and its guts, minus the gallbladder, lay on the ground in a whitish-pink pile. Lane skinned the bear's head and found three bullet holes. The first shot had taken its jaw off, so that the hounds could maul it without getting bit. After giving his dogs a taste, the shooter had finished it off with two quick ones to the head. The shot to the jaw seemed to represent everything wrong with the poacher's ethos. More than two years later it still gave Markee pause. "This never was an antihunting or an antidog thing," he said. "These guys were poachers. Outlaws. Thieves." Finding the dead bear cub was the first tangible piece of evidence Markee could use to build his case against Hillsman.

 

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