Trail of illegal wildlife ring leads to Kentucky

WACO — An investigation that began in Virginia nearly two years ago uncovered what officials say was an illegal underground coyote and fox trade that spilled into at least five other states, including Kentucky.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officers made six arrests in Central and Eastern Kentucky on Friday, including that of a Madison County man. At least 831 charges have been filed in connection with the two-year sting.

Officials say it is legal to trap or hunt wild animals, but it is illegal to buy or sell wild animals in Kentucky.

Investigators spent about 45 minutes Friday morning collecting eight coyotes from the property of George Hill, 57, of Waco.

Hill was arrested and charged with four counts of illegally buying wildlife and 11 counts of illegal possession. He was taken to the Madison County jail and later released on a $1,000 unsecured bond. Hill faces up to $7,500 in fines.

Conservation officer Jim Harrison said Hill kept the coyotes in a 30-by-40-foot enclosure on his property.

"It was nothing but mud and feces, as you can imagine," he said.

Harrison said Hill's coyotes would be released into a 200-acre fenced-in field where they were chased by foxhounds.

Officials say coyotes and foxes are captured in the wild and then traded across state lines. They can go for as much as $100 to be used for a chase.

The chase typically involves packs of hounds that are released inside fenced enclosures where they pursue the coyotes and foxes, sometimes for hours, until the wild animals are captured and killed, said Casey Pheiffer, the campaign manager for the wildlife abuse campaign with the Humane Society.

Pheiffer says thousands of coyotes and foxes are used in the chases that take place throughout the Southeast and parts of the Midwest. The owners of the coyotes and foxes typically charge as much as $25 for dogs to be entered into the chase, Pheiffer said.

The coyotes in Waco were the only animals seized in the operation. They will be taken to a holding facility as evidence until the case makes its way through the court system, Harrison said.

The investigation into animal trafficking in Kentucky began in July 2007, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Virginia officers notified Kentucky officials that an Asheville, N.C., man who was part of a trafficking investigation had made frequent and routine stops in Kentucky.

Undercover officers said they witnessed suspects buying and selling live foxes and coyotes during a 20-month investigation.

In addition to Hill, five other people were arrested in Johnson, Grant and Lee counties on charges of buying, selling or assisting in the illegal sale of wildlife. Officers also plan to make an arrest in West Virginia in connection with the investigation.

Those arrested Friday were:

■ Forest D. "Tony" Hall, 69, of Sitka in Johnson County.

■ Elbridge Cook, 62, and Michael Ellis, 62, both of Corinth in Grant County.

■ James Auxier, 41, of East Point in Johnson County.

■ Charles Creech, 73, of Beattyville in Lee County.

Thomas Hymer, 78, of Irvine in Estill County, and Clustena Hall, 70, of Sitka, were served summonses to appear in Madison District Court and Johnson District Court, respectively.

Mark Marraccini, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said the suspects face misdemeanor charges that are subject to fines rather than jail time. The fines range from $2,000 to $282,000.

Marraccini says Creech, who is accused of cutting off the tales of coyotes to make it harder for dogs to catch them, is the only suspect who could be facing jail time. He has been charged with seven counts of cruelty to animals, nine counts of illegally possessing wildlife without a permit and seven counts of illegally buying wildlife. Creech faces up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.

State and national officials say the coyote and fox trade endangers the animals captured, threatens local wildlife and contributes to the spread of diseases — including rabies, canine distemper and mange — throughout the animal population.

"It's repugnant to wildlife officials and humane advocates alike," said Pheiffer.

Pheiffer said coyotes can also cause a nuisance if they escape from their pens.

"I think that wildlife officials have learned that this underground practice is a huge problem for wildlife," she said.

Marraccini said the continued underground sale of coyotes and foxes could create a black market in Kentucky that would make the state "an attractive dumping ground" for dealers.

"When you put a commercial value on wildlife, wildlife suffers," he said.