Ray Hillsman

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.

The Hunting of the Poacher King

   
 
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.

   

   
 
 
 
Walt Markee is a naturally curious guy, and it was Ray Hillsman's bad fortune that in the spring of 1996 Markee became interested in the black market for bear gallbladders. A 37-year-old sergeant in the special investigations unit of the Oregon State Police's fish and wildlife division, Markee had spent his early years in the OSP's narcotics unit and never lost his love for uncovering the intricacies of illegal trade. A solid plug of a man, he still carries himself like the Pac-Ten wrestling champion he was at Oregon State and looks strong enough to lift a truck. He keeps his hair close-cropped and favors clean jeans and checkered button-downs. He's terse about motivation. "I want my kids' kids to be able to drive up here and still see a buck in the middle of the road," he told me one day while driving through the Coast Range.

Markee grew up hunting elk with his father outside Tillamook, the little logging and dairy-farming town on the Oregon coast known for its cheddar cheese. An experienced tracker, he possesses an uncanny alertness to human habit and behavior. One morning he arranged to meet me at the OSP office in Eugene but became impatient. "You suppose he's a Marriott Courtyard kinda guy or a Best Western kinda guy?" he asked his partner, Senior Trooper Jeff Samuels. (Best Western, but I'd already checked out.) A few minutes before our appointment, I looked up from my Egg McMuffin to find the two men sitting across the booth from me. "Figured we'd find you here," Markee said.

The lawman's initial tip on the bear-parts racket came from a couple of state troopers who'd heard about somebody distributing gallbladders out of the Lebanon Day N Nite Market. Markee started making inquiries and pretty soon he got the lowdown on Hillsman in a memo from Richard Lane. Over the years, Lane had developed a strangely formal relationship with Hillsman, something akin to the old Warner Brothers cartoon in which Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf amiably punch the clock at the sheep meadow, chase each other around for eight hours, and then punch out. Lane knew in his gut that Hillsman was running bears, but he was too busy keeping anglers from hooking endangered sea-run cutthroat trout to go after him. Markee's job was to figure out where Ray Hillsman fit into the black market.

The most surprising thing about the black market for bear gallbladders is how small-time it often is. The typical "market" consists of a poacher, a middleman, and a user. The poacher may get $100 to $200 per bladder; the middleman, twice that. Because the gallbladder market is notoriously riddled with fakes—nearly half of the "bear" gallbladders seized by wildlife enforcement agencies and sent to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, actually come from pigs—the price can increase with authentication, such as a bear claw.

In traditional Asian medicine, the bile salts in a bear gallbladder are reputed to be a powerful tonic for a wide array of ailments, from liver and cardiac-related illnesses to carbuncles, gallstones, and sinus infections. "It's very costly and is often used in minute amounts in combination with other medicines," explains Jianxin Huang, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in Seattle who studied traditional medicine in China. Huang used bear bile only once while practicing in China, he says, to "treat a person with severe liver damage." The patient recovered. He's never used bear bile in the United States. (A synthetic form of one of the ursine bile salts, ursodeoxycholic acid, is found in the drug Actigall, which is used to dissolve gallstones.)

In this country, trade in bear parts tends to center around port cities with large Asian populations, such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. Although the Asiatic black bear population has been decimated by the trade in Asia, where a gallbladder can command a price of a thousand dollars or more, demand remains strong enough in bear-rich North America to draw illegal imports. "It's somewhat counterintuitive—there are more bear parts entering the country than leaving," notes Craig Hoover, a senior program officer at TRAFFIC North America, the wildlife-trade monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund. Gallbladders are usually dried to the size of prunes and stuffed in suitcases or shipped in boxes, but importers and exporters have gone to inventive lengths to get their merchandise across borders. In 1992, a South Korean smuggler was caught trying to move seven gallbladders out of Canada; he had dipped the organs in chocolate to try to fool the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

As Markee picked his way through the bear gallbladder market, he began to focus on Hillsman. In addition to Lane's memo, he'd received several anonymous tips about Hillsman on the department's TIP (Turn In a Poacher) hot line. "People wouldn't leave their names," he said. "They were scared of these guys." Hillsman's ring was a tight-knit bunch; it could take years for an undercover cop to penetrate it. If this turned out to be a racketeering case, as Markee suspected, it would have to be built on inside information. What he needed, desperately, was a "cooperating citizen," copspeak for informant.

 

Chuck Hartwig, who makes his living as a welder and general laborer, is a hunter himself—mostly deer and elk, though he bagged a black bear near the coast about ten years ago. He'd met Hillsman before, through the union, and had heard him talk. But one day in the fall of 1996, during a lunch break on a job repairing the underground steam lines at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Hillsman "started talking about all the bear he was shooting, killing cubs and such," Hartwig recalled. Hillsman's matter-of-fact account of the slaying of a mother bear and her cubs so rattled Hartwig that he told his wife, Judy, when he got home. She urged him to call the TIP line, and he did. He thought that would be the end of it.

When Walt Markee heard the message, he couldn't believe his luck: The caller had left his name and number. The two finally met face-to-face in the cop's Salem, Oregon, office in early November 1996. Markee asked for Hartwig's help but didn't sugarcoat the assignment.

"This is going to change your life forever," the cop warned. "You're gonna be labeled as a snitch. If you start this, you can't quit it. We need you as a witness to go to court, if it gets that far. Otherwise everything you tell us is just hearsay."

Hartwig drove home and talked it over with his wife. He had to weigh the risk to himself and Judy—these were backcountry good ol' boys with short tempers and long guns—against the havoc that Hillsman's ring was wreaking in the hills. At 58, he'd seen his share of the country as a journeyman construction worker, doing stints in Prudhoe Bay and Ketchikan, Alaska, in the seventies, and he didn't want to get bogged down in a police investigation. But then, as much as he loved hitching up his 35-foot fifth-wheel trailer and heading for the hills to hunt deer or fish for steelhead, he couldn't abide what Hillsman was doing. "I thought the animals deserved better than what they were getting," he said later. "I'm not an animal activist or anything like that, but you don't just go out and slaughter bears. It's breaking the law, and if you break the law you should pay for it."

It took Hartwig several weeks, and a number of frank conversations with Markee, to decide whether he could give up the next year of his life to catching Hillsman. But on New Year's Eve, he dialed Markee's number. "Walt? This is Chuck Hartwig," he said. "I'll go to court if you need me."

 
   
 
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.

 
   
 
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.

 
   
 
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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