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How to cover the outdoors like a crime reporter and find better stories

BY MARK FREEMAN
An Oregon police chief in my newspaper’s circulation area was arrested for illegally guiding would-be cougar and bobcat poachers, who happened to be undercover police officers. After I, and every other news outlet, immediately reported the ironic case as it broke, I followed up the next day by going online to the state court website and downloading the arrest warrant affidavit — the police’s outlining of some of the evidence against the chief to get a judge to sign the warrant.
The 38-page document was loaded with juicy details about how willing the chief was to help poach cougars, how he bragged about his past crimes and how he apologized for his “old dogs” when they failed to tree a cat. Great stuff, for sure. But not as good as the telephone call to the chief, who said he was told not to talk to me by his attorney.
“Well, I was wondering why you think the cops wrote a 38-page affidavit in a misdemeanor case?” I asked him.
“These guys wanted to hang a police chief’s head on their lodge pole,” the chief said. “They wanted my scalp. I think they’re going to get it.”
Too often outdoor writers miss opportunities for telling in-depth and just plain interesting wildlife crime stories, not because they are unwilling, but because the skills set that propels most of us into the outdoor genre doesn’t include stints as a crime reporter.
I spent two years on the crime beat before I talked my way into the outdoor gig I’ve held at my newspaper the past 28 years. I often rely on knowledge of how the criminal system works to tell interesting outdoor stories, while showing readers, fellow news hacks and bosses that their outdoor guy’s stones still clink a little.
First, a little myth-busting.
Writing about poachers does not make legit hunters and anglers look bad. It doesn’t hamper investigations or lead to difficulties empaneling juries. The cops know the information is there if you know how to get it. And most importantly, the “wait until after the sentencing” to do the story you could do today cheats your readers — the people you really answer to.
The trick is mining public records.
Indictments are public records. So are citations. Most of the stuff nowadays is online. Each state has its own electronic version of the case filings, which are easily searchable. If you can, make sure you get the defendant’s full name and birthdate to ensure you are looking up the right guy.
Most affidavits are public record once the indictments or arrest warrants they lead to are executed. Use that information to leverage interviews with defendants. Most investigators won’t talk but are more than happy to see their police work come out in articles based on these affidavits.
If the case involves a search warrant of, say, a hunting lodge or house, go back a few days after the search and get what’s called the “return,” which is a document detailing what was seized in the raid. These are often very interesting and help fill in gaps in the story about things like the alleged firearms involved and the numbers of potential poached animals.
Also, search for prior arrests and convictions. They are almost always there, but make sure you scroll through the entire case to find out the disposition. Often they end in dismissals, and I rarely mention those.
Most courthouses now have online public access to these records. Ask a clerk to walk you through their system. Then go to the county clerk’s office to look up property records to see who owns the searched house. If you don’t have the defendant’s telephone
number, saunter over to the elections office to get it off his voter registration card.
Federal wildlife cases are even easier, thanks to the feds’ online PACER system, where court proceedings are logged, including judges’ rulings. But the best are the initial affidavits filed by federal officers, who write the most detailed affidavits that basically lay out the entire case against the defendant and are usually available right after the arrest. PACER has even allowed me to write about a massive cougar-poaching ring in Colorado that included a guy from my city as if I was there.
PACER requires an account, and there are fees for printing documents. If you work in a newsroom, your court reporter will have access to it. Have him or her help you out in the first few searches you attempt. If you work independently, you can purchase your own subscription to PACER.
Once you have all your documents, don’t soft-peddle anything. Write your toughest defensible lead supported by information from your public records.
Once you get the hang of using PACER, run every new source you use to make sure you know who you’re dealing with. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised at what you find.
As a rule, I file public-records requests for the names and dates of birth of everyone who buys Oregon’s governor’s hunting tags in auctions, then I run background checks to see if they have past wildlife violations. Once I discovered a statewide, long-season governor’s elk tag was bought by a guy who had two past violations — hunting elk out of season one year, hunting elk in a closed area another.
I called him and asked why he bought the tag. He replied that he doesn’t like to be constrained by hunt lengths and areas.
“I see you’ve had a problem with those before,” I said.
I asked him about the violations and was half expecting a mea culpa about making up for past wrongs. He just blathered on about how he’s rich enough to do this legally now.
Sure beats writing that lame press-release story about an unnamed tag buyer. ♦
— Having reached the apex of his incompetency very early in his career, Mark Freeman has covered the environment and anchors the weekly Oregon Outdoors section for the Mail Tribune newspaper for 28 years.

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