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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   The average fine for illegally killing a black bear in Oregon is about $200, and the maximum penalty taps out at $5,000, the price of a couple of good hounds. In most states, game violations are minor offenses, although Colorado recently raised the penalty for killing a trophy-size bighorn sheep to $25,000. Prison sentences are almost unheard of. But Hillsman's poaching was so relentless that, for the first time ever, state game officials thought seriously of bringing him up on RICO charges.

The federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970, is widely known as the law that brought down the Mafia. Most states now have their own versions of RICO; Oregon used it most famously to prosecute leaders of the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh cult in 1985. In 1993 it became one of the first states to include fish and wildlife crimes as "RICO predicate offenses." The more Markee studied Hillsman and his associates, the more they reminded him of a classic narcotics ring.

"In a game investigation," Markee explained, "you have these little snapshots: Guy kills a bear, you take him to trial, prove he did it, he gets a ticket. With RICO, you've got a moving picture of the entire scope of activity." In December 1997, Markee touched base with Bob Hamilton and Brenda Rocklin, prosecutors in the Oregon attorney general's organized crime section. Hamilton agreed that a RICO case looked promising, but he'd need a mountain of evidence to take it to trial. So far, Markee had zero gallbladders and one dead bear cub. What Hamilton needed to tie the case together was an unimpeachable piece of evidence that would link Hillsman to the gallbladder market. "If you want these guys," Hamilton told Markee, "catch 'em red-handed with a gallbladder."

December 4, 1997:

Hartwig: "You don't have any to sell now, do you?"

Hillsman: "I got one that I brought back from [a hunt in] California...they're a lot bigger down there and I can't even get rid of it!"

"It's too big or what?"

"I don't know. The market's dried up."

"Is that right?"

"Oh yeah. You know, it should be twice what the other's worth and they want to give me the same or less. I've been trying to move it because you know I could use the money."

"What's it worth then?"

"Fuck, it should be worth 350, 400 bucks."

"Weren't you getting that for the galls before?"

"I was getting 200 and a little better.... You know, Jesus Christ, I'm trying to at least recoup my expenses."

"That's...that's the guy down at Eugene?"

"Uh-huh."

By the end of 1997, Ray Hillsman had single-handedly driven the price of bear galls down to $150 in Oregon. He'd let his bloodthirst for the hunt get in the way of economic self-interest, and now it was taking a toll. For one thing, his wife was fed up. When she found any gallbladders in the freezer she gave them to the dogs, and she told her husband that if she saw him leave the house with a rifle he'd find nothing but divorce papers waiting for him when he got back. That winter, while the bears hibernated, he kept his dogs fed by poaching bobcats and trading the hides for sacks of dog chow.

Meanwhile, Markee and his partners delved into the buy side of the market. They soon discovered the identity of "the guy down at Eugene": Kenneth Yi, the 69-year-old proprietor of Hi-Tech Cleaners. As far as the state police could determine, Yi constituted the major portion of Ray Hillsman's gallbladder market. Like most buyers, he took the organ's bile salts as a remedy for whatever ailed him. "Make you strong," he would later explain to the police. The problem was, Hillsman had glutted the market. Ken Yi didn't want to buy his big ol' California gallbladder because he already had 17 others crowding the orange juice in his freezers at home.

What Hillsman needed was a new buyer. Through the grapevine he heard about a fellow who might be interested in a whole carcass. That buyer was Duk Park, owner of the Day N Nite Market. Park had so many suppliers knocking on his door he'd begun to demand paws along with the bladders for proof. But he wasn't averse to considering Hillsman's merchandise and eventually did business with him, the cops believe, through another middleman.

From day one of his investigation, Walt Markee had been keen to find out how the Day N Nite fit into the backcountry black market. The more he learned, the more the convenience store began to sound like a bear-parts trading post.

 

By April 1998, the snow was melting and the bears were emerging from hibernation. When they came, Hillsman was ready. "These boys went back out into the woods and they were just going crazy, killing two, three bears a week," prosecutor Bob Hamilton recalled.

"That's when I realized, Hey, we need to shut these guys down, now," Walt Markee said. With or without a gallbladder, he started aiming for his investigation's D day: May 4. Chuck Hartwig was calling Hillsman more frequently, but the poacher king's boasts weren't going to cut it in court. Markee needed Hartwig to go out hunting with Hillsman, to bring home something concrete. So Hartwig went.

That weekend was a doozy. As Hartwig recalls it, he met up with Hillsman, a 20-year-old protégé of his named Nathan Gamache, and a couple other poachers on April 11 at a Denny's outside Eugene. Hartwig was armed only with a Pentax 35mm. "Hillsman knew I'd taken a lot of pictures of animals when I lived in Alaska," he later explained. "He was all for me going along taking pictures."

They convoyed up to Triangle Lake, away from their usual Umpqua grounds, because Hillsman had got word that a couple of poachers had been nabbed there recently by Richard Lane. At the turn, Hillsman and Hartwig stayed by the road while the younger guys went in after the dogs. Hillsman seemed to have grown more cautious; he hadn't brought a rifle, and he was letting his apprentices learn for themselves. But before Gamache went in after the bear, he rummaged through his truck for bullets and came up empty. Hillsman, steamed, pulled a loaded .22 pistol out of the lock box of his own truck and handed it to Gamache. "What you gotta do," Hartwig remembered him saying, "is climb a tree next to the bear and shoot across at it. Get real close." (At his trial, Hillsman claimed that he told Gamache to scare the bear off, not kill it.) Hartwig and Hillsman were leaning against the truck, listening to the dogs, when Gamache reappeared, looking shaken. He'd done what Hillsman told him, he said, but as soon as he got up the tree the bear shimmied down and ran up another. So he climbed a second tree and damn if the bear didn't do it again. "I ain't shootin' that with a .22 pistol," Gamache said.

Now Hillsman was downright mad. He said that once the dogs tree a bear three times, that bear has to die or the dogs won't hunt anymore. He told Gamache to wait there while he went after a rifle. "I know a fella down the road," he said. Hartwig hopped in the truck with Hillsman, and the two men drove to the backwoods estate of Charlton "Char" Richardson.

In his wildest dreams, Chuck Hartwig never imagined that a tip to a police hot line would lead him into such a spooky-ass den. He followed Hillsman into a cabin on the south bank of the Siuslaw River that was straight out of Snuffy Smith. "Walking into Char Richardson's house is like walking into a museum," Hillsman would later say. "He's got eye hooks and...these guns hanging just everywhere, pistols, shotguns, sawed-offs." Richardson, a peaceable man whose weathered face bore the scars of 85 hard years, loaned the men a spare .30-06. Hillsman returned a few hours later with the gun and offered Richardson a fresh gallbladder. "Well, I use it," Richardson later told me, "and I know three widow women who use it for their rheumatism." He accepted the bladder, along with $200 for a Winchester 308 Hillsman decided to buy off him.

Hillsman, Hartwig, and Gamache went hunting the next day, too. At the turn, Hillsman watched one of Gamache's younger dogs halfheartedly lope toward a treed bear and then lose interest. "If that dog comes back to the road without going to the tree, I'm gonna shoot it," he announced. Sure enough, when the dog came back, Hillsman pulled out his .22 pistol and put a bullet into its head. Gamache, who had paid $400 for the dog, all but thanked Hillsman for dispatching it. Neither was interested in feeding a dog that wouldn't hunt.

The dogs that would hunt that day treed a big one, which Gamache shot and de-galled. The bear was so big that he cut off a claw to show Hillsman, who had again stayed back at the road. Hillsman was impressed but not that impressed, so Gamache tossed the claw into an alder tree. "Say," Hartwig said, "I'd sure like to have that as a souvenir." Sure, Gamache said, and obligingly retrieved it.

Walt Markee was ecstatic when Hartwig pulled the claw out of his pocket. "How stupid are these people to give that to you?" he marveled.

 

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