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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   You can buy a little bit of everything at the lebanon Day N Nite Market. Tucked in by the side of the Santiam Highway in the heart of western Oregon farm country, about 35 miles north of Eugene, the tiny convenience store stocks cold Pepsi, crispy corn dogs, motor oil, toilet paper, ginseng tablets, live bait, and Slim Jims. If you want to call your brother in Mexico, they sell a card for that, too. But when Lieutenant Randy Scorby of the Oregon State Police stepped through the door at 7:30 a.m. on May 4, 1998, he was hoping to find something that wasn't exactly on the menu. Scorby waited for one lone early-morning customer to conclude her business, stepped to the counter, and presented his shopping list: a search warrant. He didn't need much—just the whole carcass of an American black bear, evidence of the brutal handiwork of one Ray Hillsman, Oregon's most notorious bear poacher. As it turned out, the Day N Nite Market had just what he was looking for.

Agness Park, the co-owner, brought her husband up front to talk to the lieutenant. Duk Park, a 48-year-old Korean-American, was surprisingly helpful. He admitted to using bear parts himself—for medicinal purposes, of course—and showed Scorby a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red with gray chunks of bear gallbladder floating in it. Scorby's next move: secure the walk-in freezer. When he and his strike force of six officers opened the door, they found one old hide, two skulls, a gaggle of paws, an undetermined organ in a 32-ounce Pepsi cup, and a fresh head and hide sitting in leftover sacks of Wal-Mart brand Ol' Roy dog food.

Despite turning up all this frozen carnage, Scorby and his team still hadn't found the key piece of evidence they needed to prove the existence of a secret poaching ring specializing in rare bear innards: one relatively intact, as-yet-unpickled gallbladder. While the other officers fanned out to search the rest of the store, Scorby reported in to his operation commander, Sergeant Walt Markee, via cell phone. He had just finished talking to Markee when someone piped up, "Lieutenant, you might want to have a look at this."

Scorby walked over and peered into the frosty mist of the ice cream bin beside the checkout counter. There, sitting in a brown paper bag right next to the Klondike Bars, was a frozen, quarter-pound, greenish-brown blob—the gallbladder of a 400-pound black bear. Scorby got back on the horn to Walt Markee with the news: They'd got their gall.

 

The seeds of Ray Hillsman's downfall were sown by his mouth, which was big and which, for the life of him, he couldn't keep shut. By trade Hillsman was a day laborer in his late forties who made his living at the muscle end of a 90-pound jackhammer. By avocation he was a bear poacher who lived to roam the mountains of Oregon's Coast Range and kill as many examples of Ursus americanus as he and his small crew of backwoods houndsmen could chase down. In his backyard in Brownsville he kept five of the keenest hunting hounds in the state. He loved his best dog, Spud, more than most men love their wives. But if one of his dogs failed to share his enthusiasm for the hunt, the last thing the cur ever saw was the barrel of Ray Hillsman's gun. "I wish I could hunt every day," he once declared. "Hunt until I was so tired I couldn't hunt, where I had to rest and the dogs had to rest." (Hillsman declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Among his coworkers in Local 121 of the International Laborers Union, Hillsman was known for being garrulous and hard to work with. A wiry guy with a full mustache, he had an oversize ego and didn't like to take orders. But come lunchtime, Ray always had a good bear story to tell. "We caught a big bad one last weekend," he'd say. It seemed like he caught a big bad one damn near every weekend. Once, he illustrated his tale by flashing a wad of $50 and $100 bills—profits, he claimed, from selling the gallbladders of his prey to an Asian businessman down in Eugene.

Nobody knows for sure how many bears Hillsman and his poaching ring killed, but Oregon officials estimate that they wasted upward of 50 to 100 black bears a year for five to ten years. He'd been caught in another bear poaching investigation back in 1990—when he made his first connections to the gallbladder black market—and indicted on three wildlife offenses, which he fought and got cut down to two misdemeanors. Hillsman ended up paying an $1,800 fine and was put on probation for three years, including a one-year hunting ban. The forced layoff just seemed to whet his appetite for more. The species, whose population nationwide is conservatively estimated at 325,000, would survive. But in the woods of southwestern Oregon, where the legal bear harvest among hunters totalled 248 last year, Hillsman and his small crew of apprentice poachers—Joe Lagler, a 30-year-old pipefitter, Spencer Farrell, a 24-year-old farmer, and Nathan Gamache, a 20-year-old logger—were running amok.

Hillsman's signature move was a macabre bit of backcountry surgery. After he and his gang shot a bear, he would snap on a pair of surgical gloves. Then he'd slit the creature up the belly, stick his arm inside the still-warm abdominal cavity, yank out the gallbladder (a squishy, pear-size sac attached to the liver), and tie it off with his bootlace or a piece of pink surveyor's tape before slicing it away with a knife. After burying his gloves, he'd leave the carcass to rot. Sometimes, if he suspected he might run into the authorities on the way out, Hillsman would slide the wet gallbladder down his pants.

"This wasn't hunting," said Richard Lane, the veteran game warden who patrolled the Umpqua River region that Hillsman turned into his own private game reserve. "This was the mass murder of bears." And for a while nothing could stop him—not Lane, not the cops, and certainly not his own conscience. Hillsman had become the poacher king.

  

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