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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   Markee didn't sleep too well that April. Every weekend, as Hillsman was "rocking it to 'em" up in the mountains, he, Owren, and Samuels watched. And every weekday and night, they feverishly typed up affidavits and briefing books for the raids to come. The "known universe" of the bear poaching and gallbladder trade in Oregon had turned out to be larger than anyone expected, and Markee was forced to literally call in the reserves—more than 100 current and retired OSP officers—to carry out the May 4 evidence seizures. Sixteen warrants for 16 different sites around the state had to be served simultaneously to make sure one suspect didn't tip off another.

"We're committing to a RICO case, the first time this has ever been done," recalled prosecutor Bob Hamilton, "and we still don't have one single gallbladder!" Hamilton had worked "no-dope" conspiracies before, proving huge volumes of narcotics trafficking without seizing much. "But you still have some," he said. "A baggie. A fold of meth. Something."

Over the weekend of May 2, 1998, the police met at a local fire station in Salem, Oregon, where they were handed thick three-ring binders with the carefully compiled warrants. It took them most of a full day to read through it all. While they read, Markee kept in touch with Hartwig, who had gone hunting with Hillsman again. The last thing he wanted was for Hillsman to discover the plan and turn on Hartwig.

Markee got to work at 3 a.m. on May 4. He sat at the center of a command post in the Albany OSP office, calming his nervous gut with office coffee. Just past 7:30, the calls started rolling in. Reports were good. "Scene 8 is secured." "This is scene 4. We're secure." The haul was flabbergasting. They found the 17 gallbladders at Kenneth Yi's place, some tied off with pink surveyor's tape and bootlaces. They found surveyor's tape and boots with missing laces at Hillsman's house. They found one gallbladder in a tub of chocolate pudding in Char Richardson's freezer, a calendar record of bear kills at Nathan Gamache's, and the mother lode at Duk Park's Day N Nite. By the end of the day, OSP officers had seized enough evidence to fill an entire room, floor to ceiling. They had so many decomposing bear parts they had to store them in a walk-in freezer at a fish hatchery.

Ray Hillsman was arrested on May 4 but held only briefly. He'd broken hunting laws before and had coolly paid the consequences, so he wasn't sweating it this time either. Still, he hired a good lawyer. It took the cops four months to sort through all the evidence. In the meantime, Hillsman did some snooping himself. Hartwig and his wife had already moved four hours east to a small town near Pendleton, where he'd landed a job on a three-year-long construction project. About six weeks after the raid, Hillsman showed up at the door of Hartwig's trailer, presumably to find out what his old union buddy's involvement had been in the investigation. (At that point, Hillsman still didn't know the magnitude of the surveillance he'd been under or how much Hartwig had cooperated with the police.) Hartwig refused to open the door and called Markee immediately. Markee called state and local police, who appeared on the scene and convinced Hillsman that what he was doing was not a good idea.

The cops finally picked up Hillsman again in mid-September. This time they lowered the boom: a raft of wildlife charges and one felony RICO count. Markee did the cuffing honors, but he never got the satisfaction of talking with Hillsman man to man. "Y'know Ray, in the last year we've probably spent more time chasing you and your dogs than we have with our own families," he told him on the way to the station. Hillsman, covering his tracks to the end, replied, "Yeah, those coyote-chasin' sons-a-bitches!"

 

"I'm not going to try to blow smoke at anybody," Ray Hillsman told the jury at his trial in June 1999 at the Douglas County Courthouse in Roseburg, Oregon. "I have wasted bear. I have sold gallbladders. I've done numerous things that I shouldn't have did. But I'm not a racketeer."

This, in a nutshell, was Hillsman's defense strategy: Poacher? Sure. Coast Range Al Capone? Hardly. Steve Chez, the country lawyer and longtime houndsman who defended Hillsman, portrayed him as a man who killed an occasional bear but never intended to turn it into a commercial enterprise. Hillsman, he suggested after the trial, had "turned outlaw" because an intolerant populace had banned his life's passion.

True to his word, Chuck Hartwig testified. In the weeks leading up to his court appearance, Markee hid Hartwig and his wife in a secure location to make sure nobody paid the cooperating citizen an unannounced visit. His testimony was pivotal. Prosecutor Brenda Rocklin faced the jury, deep in hunting country, and told them this was not a trial about a bucolic pastime. "What he did went way beyond the bounds of hunting," she later said. "This wasn't about camaraderie or sport. He went out there to kill something." In her closing arguments, she asked: "How many more bears have to die before he's a racketeer?"

The jury deliberated for just under four hours and came back with 51 unanimous votes: guilty on 49 separate wildlife offenses, one count of theft, and one RICO count. Various members of Hillsman's crew and other players in the bear gallbladder market had already pleaded guilty to minor offenses in separate trials and cut plea agreements that were not part of the RICO case. Spencer Farrell served ten days in the county jail, had his hunting license suspended for five years, and was fined $1,400. Kenneth Yi paid a $7,500 fine. Duk Park was placed on probation for 18 months and ordered to perform ten days of community service (or serve ten days in jail). Nathan Gamache served 20 days in jail, was fined $2,000, and had his hunting license suspended for five years. Char Richardson paid $400 in restitution and had his hunting license suspended for two years. Joe Lagler's trial is set for October.

And the poacher king? Ray Hillsman spent the summer at home with Spud, his only remaining hound (he'd sold the other four just before the raid), awaiting a final sentencing hearing later this month. RICO sentencing guidelines being extremely broad, he could serve anywhere from probation to 20 years in the state penitentiary. He has not hunted in a year and a half.

Walt Markee has moved on to tackle some smaller poaching rings and has been put in charge of the OSP's fish and wildlife special investigations unit. When asked what he learned most after the whole bloody, three-year-long hunt was over, he paused and said, "Patience."


Bruce Barcott wrote about Mount Rainier climbers in the August issue.


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