The Unsolved Murder of Sunny

Inside the unsolved killing that has an idyllic lakeside town reeling

A black bear.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

People are going to take the law into their own hands if this man is not brought to justice.

The shotgun blast that struck Sunny on the night of July 29 did not kill her—at least not immediately. A trail of blood traces her last painful steps as she fled from her shooter. In those final moments, she staggered along the shore of Lake Tahoe. And on a pebbly beach beside the water, a beach she visited daily to swim, Sunny came to die.

Only one person knows what really happened to Sunny, and he’s keeping quiet. But in a town of 200, rumors spread quickly. It’s not always so easy to distinguish between person of interest, suspect, and killer, especially when the man is a gun-owning hunter and has threatened Sunny before. So our person of interest, let’s call him Tim, left town and hired a lawyer.

That hasn’t helped things though. Fleeing the scene of a crime and refusing to answer questions can make even the innocent look guilty. Not that people really doubt who did it. They’re certain enough. Tim’s name has been posted on Facebook along with his Tahoe address and phone number. There’s a $15,000 reward out for information leading to an arrest (but who are we kidding—his arrest). And that’s the least of his worries.

“People are going to take the law into their own hands if this man is not brought to justice,” says Ann Bryant, a Homewood local. Tim’s voicemail is full. There might be some messages of support on there, but it’s doubtful. “He’s had all sorts of horrific death threats,” Bryant says. “People have left messages on his phone saying horrific things—how they’d like to kill him.”

It’s natural for a murder to rile up a small town. But this was no ordinary killing. Sunny was a bear. And, in a long line of animals killed this year, she was just another black bear. After three bears were killed at a Tahoe resort, people grew angry. After Sunny was killed, things got a lot worse.

“That has brought so much attention to the bear situation that we, as a community, have to make it a tipping point,” says Keith Thomas, who runs the well-known Mr. Truckee Facebook page. “We have to effect change. Because if we don’t effect change with this, and it goes unpunished without justice, then I foresee things getting worse.”

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, THE residents of the Tahoe area were facing a similar crisis. A tourist called the California Department of Fish and Game after a bear entered the cellar of a cabin where trash was improperly stored. The agency set a trap to kill the bear, only they caught and killed the wrong one—a mother bear. She, along with one of her cubs, was killed, the other orphaned. Many of the locals care deeply for bears, and the fact that an outsider had made the call that killed the animals simply inflamed the situation.

Bryant, a wildlife specialist known for her dark clothing, sunglasses, and unparalleled love for animals of all kinds, began receiving calls. People wanted her to somehow intervene. Not knowing exactly what to do, she helped found the BEAR League and adopted a simple motto for the organization: People living in harmony with bears. By most accounts, she’s been successful. Bryant has mustered media attention, helped with outreach, and taken an active role in the community. “She’s done a tremendous about of work helping bears and humans better interact in that area,” says Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Game Enforcement Information Office.

The public, or at least its most vocal component in the Tahoe basin, is now strongly opposed to killing bears. While they are still killed around Lake Tahoe (last fall was the first bear hunt in Nevada; it’s on again this year in Nevada and California), their deaths come at a steep price. The media and local attention can be ruthless.

Individuals have been run out of town. And companies have been shamed. On the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame, Facebook users post comments about businesses that leave out trash, a dangerous practice (for the bears who are later deemed nuisance animals and killed) that rewards animals for coming in contact with people.

The administrators and users of the Wall of Shame don’t pull any punches; if they see a violation, they post it. The Incline Village board of trustees has “yet to muster the balls to make it [self-closing, self-latching dumpsters] mandatory,” one post reads. Businesses with overflowing trash bins are photographed and publicized. It has made a difference.

Last year, one of the group’s administrators, Mark Smith, conducted an informal study. He checked two dozen commercial dumpsters—then the biggest violators—four times over the course of two weeks. “Ninety-three percent of the time they were non-compliant, presenting a bear hazard,” he says. “I did an almost exact reproduction around the first of November, and I found 90 percent compliance. The role is completely reversed.”

Despite these efforts, Bryant says more bears have been killed this summer in a shorter span than ever before. Most of the killings have been lawful, if not supported by bear activists. When a bear becomes a nuisance animal—enters houses, gets too close to people too often—the California Department of Fish and Game can issue a depredation permit, which is essentially a license to kill. It’s supposed to be a three-step process before a bear is taken down, but some say that’s not always how it works; bears are killed before being given a chance to learn.

Moreover, some people don’t understand what happens to nuisance bears. “People don’t realize that if a bear is a so-called nuisance bear, it gets executed,” says Thomas. “That hasn’t been publicized.”

But no permit had been issued for Sunny. And she certainly wasn't a nuisance animal. According to Bryant, she was the “epitome of people and bears living in harmony together. She knew how to do it. She lived in this neighborhood and never caused a problem.”

TIM LIVES ON THE water of Lake Tahoe in Homewood, California. According to people in town, he’s a second-home owner and hunter. And he wanted Sunny dead. Four days before she was killed, he set about to accomplish just that. “He baited her,” says Bryant. “He put coolers out with potato chips, cookies, and lemonade mixed with vodka.”

When Sunny returned for a repeat visit, Tim had a gun ready and waiting, according to the rumors. A neighbor called the situation in to Bryant, and she immediately sent in one of her volunteers—the BEAR League acts as a first-responder in California to troublesome bear/human interactions—to calm the situation. It didn’t work. Tim threatened to shoot the volunteer.

“He called me, terrified, and said, You have to come down,” says Bryant. By the time she reached Tim (they live only several houses away), the gun was gone. But the scene was still tense. “He said, I don’t want these bears in my yard. I should be able to shoot them.”

Bryant responded: “Well, you may think that’s the way it should be, but that isn’t the way it is. You cannot shoot them for coming into your yard. You baited her for food and now she wants a repeat. You’ll be run out of town!”

“He said, Okay, okay,” says Bryant.

From there, things deescalated. Bryant offered to scare away Sunny anytime she entered his yard. And Tim seemed calmer, like he understood what was at stake and that Bryant was there to help. Four days later, Sunny was dead. And people were calling for Tim’s head.

FOR SOME, IT'S INCONCEIVABLE that the death of an animal could warrant such a visceral reaction. We eat pigs, boil lobsters alive, and run experiments on primates. Most people agree that there is something that sets humans apart from other animals. This difference is what makes killing a person murder but doing the same to a bear something, well, something else.

Yet as Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, writes regarding the treatment of non-humans: "The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” Our differentness might not matter, especially when we consider how similar we are to most mammals.

Like us, most mammals—and many birds—can suffer, not just physical pain but “also mental suffering, including stress, shock, trauma, anxiety, fear, anticipation, foreboding and terror, only to a greater or lesser extent than we do ourselves,” wrote Professor Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and author of Why Animal Suffering Matters.

The killing of a bear, or any sentient mammal, then isn’t necessarily all that different from the killing of a person, argued Linzey. “Murder is defined as ‘unlawful killing.’ Well, the intentional unjustified killing of animals comes pretty close to that.”

Philosophers and professors may make a compelling case, but most people still don’t think that way about non-humans. We’re troubled by experiments on primates and might debate the ethics of hunting or the merits of vegetarianism, but we wouldn’t call meat-eaters murderers.

If someone were to kill Tim, we wouldn’t hesitate to use that term. Yet some of the very people who so strongly support animal rights are turning to Facebook to suggest, at times, just that. Bear killers are called “humans,” and posters have suggested harming Tim. One poster wrote, “publish his name, that way he can know what it’s like to be hunted.” Another suggested hanging the shooter. The comments have attracted the attention of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. Officer Dennis Carry says they’re clear examples of cyber-bullying, a felony-level offense.

Despite this, the BEAR League did go ahead and publish Tim’s name after the Tahoe Wall of Shame took the lead. “I have no apologies for that,” says Bryant. “We protect bears, not bear killers.” However, Bryant did not post the address Tim fled to or outright state that he was responsible for Sunny's death. Instead, she posted that “he was seen four days before brandishing a gun at Sunny saying he had the right to shoot her. This is the man who’s house her body was found in front of. This is the man who, immediately after she was killed, ran away.”

Smith, at the Tahoe Wall of Shame, also stands by the decision to post Tim’s name. “We tend to name names when we see convincing evidence,” he says. "The name of the group is Tahoe Wall of Shame after all.” However, the administrators there—unlike on the BEAR League’s page—have removed several posts that cross the line from venting to “sheer threats.”

DESPITE LOCAL OPINION, TIM remains only a person of interest. The case against him isn’t certain. Two witnesses have come forward reporting they heard shooting, but one recalls hearing the shot coming late at night, the other in the early morning. Furthermore, there is no trail of blood leading from Tim’s property to Sunny’s final resting spot. The Department of Fish and Game needs evidence to convict Tim of poaching, but it isn’t clear that they have it.

Other than Bryant’s testimony and where Sunny came to die, the biggest link between Tim and the killing is a video supposedly showing him brandishing a gun the day he baited Sunny and four days before the shooting. Some call it the smoking gun; others are far more skeptical.

“I keep hearing this over and over again,” says Foy. “I watched that video 15, 20 times over and over again trying to see somebody in holding a shotgun, and it’s just not there. And maybe he is. Even if he does have a shotgun in his hand, that video was taken days before the bear was shot. And that video itself is not an illegal act.”

Without hard evidence linking Tim to Sunny’s death, the department is relying on standard police work. But what they call diligence residents call dallying. Within the community, there is a lack of confidence that justice will be served.

But most frustrating for the community, says Thomas, is the lack of communication between the Department of Fish and Game, which needs privacy to conduct its investigation, and the public. In that void, rumor and hearsay dominate the conversation, which “tends to fuel the fire.” And when it comes to Sunny, that might just be a dangerous thing.

“Bear killers aren’t welcome here,” says Bryant. “And when people know a particular person is a bear killer, it’s pretty much all over for him. Especially when the authorities don’t do a thing.”

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