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Death Before Dawn

Written by mayborn


By Christine Heinrichs

 

Thanks to an ever-present blanket of fog, most Spring mornings dawn gradually over Piedras Blancas on California’s Central Coast. On the morning of May 3, 2008, overcast skies shrouded the sheer bluffs overlooking the beach, a lighthouse and the two White Rocks off shore that give the point its name. In this tranquil setting, nearly 4,000 Northern Elephant Seals were sprawled across the beach, sleeping. An occasional elephant seal grunt and a gull’s call were the only sounds punctuating the surf – until three shots shattered the peace, leaving three seals lying dead with bullet holes in their heads. There were no witnesses to the executions, except for the gulls and seals.

The vast herd of elephant seals living along this remote section of coastline, 200 miles south of San Francisco and 240 miles north of Los Angeles, are relative newcomers. They began arriving in Piedras Blancas about 20 years ago. There were only a few – just 12, in fact, in December 1990, according to U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Biologist Brian Hatfield’s records. A pregnant female gave birth to a pup in 1991 and before long, thousands were taking over the beach. 

They created a sensation, eclipsing any carnival circus that had ever come to a coastal California town.  The seals didn’t pay much attention to the crowds gawking at them. But the seal watchers fawned over them like their pets, taking their pictures and talking to them like they were great friends of the seals.  But with 5,000-pound wild animals crossing the same terrain as humans, conflicts were inevitable. In 1996, a 12-foot, one-ton seal crossed paths with a two-ton SUV. The seal died. The SUV was wrecked. But occupants walked away

The state highway agency, CalTrans, erected some concrete barriers to keep the seals at bay. But the barriers didn’t stop them. Residents joked about the state’s effort to stop the mammoth seals. “Where does a 5,000-pound elephant seal go? Anywhere he wants.”

Almost 15 years ago, the state swapped some land with the Hearst Corporation and re-routed the highway. It also paved a parking lot and built a boardwalk to facilitate public access. Today, visitors are welcome to watch the seals as much as they want. 

The beach rookery at Piedras Blancas is one of the few places on earth where the public can see elephant seals in their natural habitat. There are only 17 established colonies on the West Coast, from Vancouver Island in the north to Baja California. And unlike many of the other rookeries, Piedras Blancas is easily accessible to humans. Most rookeries are on offshore islands that have little or no public access.

During the crowded breeding season, a beachmaster stands sentinel in the middle of his harem of 30 females, keeping an eye out for interlopers. The beachmaster’s vigilance, however, doesn’t offer any special privileges. The bulls still have to wait until their harem comes into heat - at the end of a month of lactation. Mating is always the last event before the seals return to the ocean, and only the most dominant bulls get to enjoy the pleasure of breeding. So does the public who flock to gawk and giggle at the love fest.

Pups are born in January and February. More than 4,400 pups were born in the winter 2011 birthing season. In May, they lumber onto the beach to rest after spending the winter at sea – hunting and eating.  Scientists estimate that about 15,000 seals hang out at Piedras Blancas for several months during the year doing what elephant seals do: rest, molt, fight, mate and give birth.

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The three slain seals were young males weighing at least 1,000 pounds.  Their companions were either adult females or other juveniles like themselves, less than six years old. About a dozen were classified as “subadults” —six to eight years old with noses not yet long enough to hang down from their heads. They were shot without provocation while they were either lolling on the beach,  lying on top of each other, sparring with their brothers or splashing in the breakers.

On the morning of the shooting, shortly before 7 a.m., Kathryn Karako, a volunteer for Friends of the Elephant Seals, showed up to count the seals. A dense layer of fog kept the sun’s rays from breaking through, keeping temperatures below 55 degrees. The day was “dark and gloomy,” recalls Supervising Ranger Leander Tamoria, with an occasional breeze.

As usual, Karako began counting the seals at the south end of the beach. By 8 a.m., she was on the trail at the north end looking down on the seals from the bluff. Something odd caught her attention. One of the seals among the jostling juveniles wasn’t moving. “There were a lot of young seals in the area, sand and movement,” Karako says. 

She got her binoculars to take a closer look. She was stunned to see a seal with a hole in its head. She raised her eyes and saw another seal lying in a pool of blood. “I never thought I’d come across something like that. It’s shocking that we had that kind of violence against the seals in this area.”

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Volunteer docents arrived in their bright blue jackets around 10 a.m., carrying packs of information about the seals: maps showing migration patterns, photos, bits of shed skin for visitors to touch. Visitors often marvel at the sort of stuff the docents carry around with them. “You’re like a walking museum,” one visitor told a docent after scanning the free packet. Docents started counting the visitors showing up at the rookery in 1997. To date, they’ve counted more than a million. In May 2008, the month the seals were shot, the docents counted 6,632 visitors.

Karako reported the dead seals to the first docent who arrived. The docent called the Friends of the Elephant Seal office  on his cell phone to report the shootings. Park Ranger Leander Tamoria was the first state park official to arrive at the crime scene. But he recognized that the killing of the seals was a serious matter – one that would involve a team of seasoned criminal investigators.

 Todd Tognazzini, a state game warden from Morro Bay, a fishing and tourist community of 10,000 people 35 miles south of Piedras Blancas, arrived at the crime scene around noon. He immediately closed the gate from the parking lot to the trail on north bluff, just 30 yards away from the murdered seals. He marked off the crime scene with bright yellow tape and began to scour the area for evidence. He went down to the beach, examined the dead animals and took pictures. There were no exit wounds. The bullets were lodged in the seal’s skulls. 

Tognazzini, now a lieutenant with more than 25 years in wildlife law enforcement, drew some logical conclusions about how the shooting might have happened. The seals were probably shot from the parking lot, about 25 yards away, with a high-powered rifle -- a .223 caliber or 22-250. The shooter propped his rifle between the door jamb and the truck body over the open door’s hinge, giving him a stable place to brace the shot. The expended brass shell casings conveniently discharged into the passenger side of the truck. The shooter “didn’t have to get out of the truck, so he wasn’t exposed to potential witnesses,” Tognazzini says. “I surmised that it happened around first light, when no one was around. It’s a very easy shot for a rifle with a scope.”

Tognazzini searched for shell casings, but didn’t find any. He hoped none of the visitors had taken one away. The only physical evidence he had was in the animals. Anticipating a prosecutor's request for physical proof, Tognazzini decided to decapitate the seals below their head wounds.  “If we ever came up with a suspect in the case. I had the entire wound intact.”

The seal skin was much tougher than he expected. He had to use a saw to cut through their necks at the bone. The crude surgery was gorier than Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. When the operation was over, Tognazzini’s uniform was caked with blood and fragments of seal skin. Each head weighed 60 to 80 pounds. The game warden stuffed the 200 pounds of seal heads into a bag and took them to an emergency pet hospital 40 miles away in Atascadero. Located on the east side of the Santa Lucia mountains over a 1,700-foot summit, the hospital was about an hour away. At the pet hospital Tognazzini was met by a team of technicians and veterinarians. They took X-rays, which showed that the bullets had shattered after striking the thick skull bones of the seals. “The bullets were small caliber as I had originally determined,” Tognazzini says.

 “A single rifle bullet traveling at high speed had killed each animal.  A handgun bullet would not penetrate to the depth found and would generally stay intact due to its slower speed.”  

After the ballistic investigation was completed, Tognazzini stuffed the bloody heads back into his bag, put them back in his car and transported them to a freezer operated by the Department of Fish & Game in San Luis Obispo for additional tests and analysis.                                     

Tamoria and a couple of docent volunteers created a makeshift burial ground for the headless seals on the beach. As they worked, an afternoon wind rose up, stinging them with flying sand and making the job of burying the seals even more difficult. The wind continued to create havoc over the next few months, scrubbing sand off the burial site. The stench of rotting carcasses polluted the air around Piedras Blancas, a constant reminder of the unsolved crime and the presence of an unknown killer.

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Roy Torres, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement Special Agent, arrived in San Luis Obispo County from Monterey the following day, Sunday, May 4. Elephant seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, but the severity of the crime was compounded because it took place in a National Marine Sanctuary. That’s why NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) took responsibility for the investigation. “This is like Yosemite or Yellowstone, except it’s marine,” says Torres. “We consider it analogous to a national park.”

Torres and another OLE agent in NOAA’s Monterey office handle investigations of wildlife crimes like the killing of the seals. His investigations led to the arrest and conviction of criminals engaged in smuggling juvenile leopard sharks and for the shooting of a sea lion with a crossbow. Torres also investigated sewage spills that damaged wildlife habitats and the theft of steelhead trout. A wealthy San Francisco developer built a dam on his property to make poaching the trapped trout easy. The developer was sent to a federal prison - a first for a wildlife crime. Torres says most criminal activity involving wildlife is difficult to investigate and prosecute. In June 2012, two dolphins were found shot dead. But the bullets passed through the wounds, leaving prosecutors without evidence. Even successful prosecutions often result in little or no jail time.

At Torres’s recommendation, NOAA offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the seal killer. Using cash awards as an inducement for informants enabled Torres to solve the case of Arrow, a Morro Bay sea lion shot with a crossbow in 2002 after someone at a local bar overheard the culprits boasting about it and called Torres for the reward money.

Torres drove his truck on Highway 1 towards the crime scene, 100 miles south of Monterey, the route he always takes when he gets a call from San Luis Obispo County. From Carmel south, Highway 1 is a two-lane road, notorious for its winding switchbacks along the very edge of the crumbling coastline. The inland side of Highway 1 opens into ranchland in south Monterey County and San Luis Obispo County. Fifty miles south, San Luis Obispo, the county seat, is home to California State Polytechnic University and the California State Men’s Colony. Cal Poly prides itself on its engineering and agriculture departments, although it’s occasionally embarrassed by episodes such as the bad press created when a major donor, Harris Ranch, tried to prevent food activist Michael Pollan from giving a lecture in 2009. The Men’s Colony, a sprawling state penitentiary and a major county employer, houses around 7,000 inmates crowded into space intended for 3,700. It’s one of the largest in the country.

One of the county’s major tourist attractions is Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s Mediterranean-style estate overlooking the ocean from 1,600 feet up in the Santa Lucias. Now a state historic monument open to the public as a museum, it was the inspiration for Xanadu, the fictional estate of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” Piedras Blancas is only six miles north of the castle, making the seal rookery a convenient stopover for sightseers.

For Torres, the drive offers the opportunity to inspect his territory, about a quarter of California’s 3,427 miles of shoreline, and see first hand how construction activities along the cliffs, jade collection violations, steelhead poaching on creeks, abalone poaching and the myriad other ways criminal acts can mar the natural resources. “I’m never doing only one thing,” Torres says.

Torres encounters the Piedras Blancas bluffs after passing through rocky cliffs, and the road dips into rolling rangeland. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse always reminded Torres of the dangers at sea. Now it would remind him of the dangers on the beach. Neither Torres nor any other marine mammal crime investigator interviewed for this story has ever heard of the murder of an elephant seal.

Torres wanted to know who would do such a thing. “Whoever shot the animals knew what he was doing,” he says.  Torres decided to hang out around the scene of the crime on the chance that the shooter might return to kill some more seals. He drove around the area for several days, sleeping in his truck in the rookery parking lot. But if the assassin was nearby, Torres didn’t notice.  Under other circumstances, Torres would have enjoyed camping at Piedras Blancas. But alone, stalking a seal killer that for all Torres knew might be stalking him, was unnerving at times. “You’re really alone out there,” he says. “I was concerned, and I have a gun.”

Growing up in San Diego, the ocean was the underpinning of his social life.  Birthday parties were held on the beach. He surfed with the guys. He got his BS in criminal justice at San Diego State University in 1991 and signed on with NOAA. Balding under his NOAA baseball cap, gray peppering his temples and goatee, Torres could easily be mistaken for one of the commercial fishermen in his jurisdiction. He’s a regular patron of the local coffee shops and cafes in Monterey. But frequent threats against enforcement agents keep him wary of publicity.

No photos please. “I’m working with people who aren’t nice,” he says.

Torres drove out to the evidence freezer operated by the Department of Fish & Game in San Luis Obispo and picked up the severed heads that Sunday. He wanted to get the bullet wounds further analyzed, but without a NOAA forensic laboratory, Torres has to rely on other law enforcement labs to evaluate the evidence. The California Department of Fish & Game lab in Santa Cruz offered to help. He sent the heads there.

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Unknown to Torres at the time, the seal killer’s story was starting to unravel on its own. And as it did, Torres and other NOAA investigators swooped in, scrambling to gather enough evidence to prosecute the seal killer. At first, investigators were tight-lipped, refusing to disclose any information about their investigation. But pressed by me for information about their investigation, Torres and Tognazzini, with the consent of NOAA’s legal advisors, agreed to discuss their investigation of the case without revealing the name of the seal killer or anyone who was a party to the crime. What follows is their account of what happened.

 On a Sunday morning, in a Central Valley town southeast of Bakersfield,  Joe Hodges (a pseudonym) was visiting a friend, Sarah Melton (also a pseudonym), when her phone rang. The caller, a family member in Morro Bay, had read the news of the elephant seal shootings in the local newspaper and knew who the killer was: her father.  Joe was sitting nearby. He saw Sarah become unglued, and overheard enough of the conversation to know that Sarah’s father shot the elephant seals.

Her father — Ben McGurdy (also a pseudonym) — lived next door to Sarah, and  Joe was a friend of Ben’s. So he walked over and knocked on Ben’s door. “I hear you are in some trouble,” Joe told Ben, according to Torres. Joe offered to take the 22-250 rifle off Ben’s hands in case investigators came knocking on his door. Ben brought out his rifle and the three expended shell casings.  He gave the rifle and the shell casings to Joe and asked him to keep them for him. “Get this out of the house,” Ben told Joe, according to Torres. Joe took Ben’s gun and shells to his home and put them together with his own air rifles.

Sarah was married the following weekend, and Ben was present to give his daughter away at her wedding. Ben may have feared that he couldn’t keep his crime covered up for long. The shootings were a major news story on the Central Coast. Oregon and Washington buzzed with rumors that a crazed gunman was traveling the coast. The community was in an uproar. Whatever the case, he left the following day for Louisiana to stay with another family member.

The rifle stayed with Joe, who was having problems of his own. His marriage was falling apart, corroded by drug and alcohol problems, and complicated by business failures. His own guns had been confiscated by the sheriff’s department after they had to break-up fights between him and his soon-to-be-ex wife.  To make matters worse, Joe’s old dog was sick and dying and now he didn’t even have a real rifle to put his old dog out of its misery. His air rifles weren’t powerful enough to do the job. Joe decided his only choice was to use Ben’s 22-250 rifle. He led his old dog out into a nearby field and shot it.

Joe became so despondent after shooting his dog that he started drinking – heavily. And during his drunken spree, he began shooting up his own house. With his house filled with holes, Joe retreated to a cabin owned by Ben’s family in the mountains. Joe didn’t mention to Ben’s family that he was going to their cabin. They’d been friends over the years, and had shown him where the key was hidden. He figured Ben wouldn’t mind, either.

But according to NOAA investigators, his business partner and co-workers, including Ben’s family members, upset about his drinking and drug use, decided to turn Joe in.  They knew about an outstanding DUI warrant for Joe, called the sheriff’s office and tipped the deputy off to where Joe was staying. A deputy came out and picked him up on the warrant. Joe spent a few days in jail sobering up. As he stewed over how the sheriff knew about the warrant and where to find him, he figured out who had sent the sheriff after him. 

While Joe was in jail, some of Ben’s family members decided to get Ben’s 22-250 rifle – the one that could put Ben behind bars for a long time - back.  Joe’s shoot-em-up escapades inside his own house had broken water pipes. They could hear water running inside. They got permission from Joe’s estranged wife, living in Arizona, to enter the house, to stop the running water and prevent further damage. While they were there, they looked for Ben’s rifle. They found Joe’s air rifles and took them, but didn’t find the 22-250. They returned the next day and searched everywhere again, finding it stuffed between the box spring and the mattress in the master bedroom.

But when Joe got out of jail, drove home and saw that his rifles were taken and his house was turned upside down, he was furious. He decided to tell a local sheriff the tale of Ben’s seal shootings. On May 23, just short of three weeks after the elephant seal killings, Joe came clean about who the murderer was: his friend, Ben McGurdy.

“In wildlife enforcement, someone keeps their mouth buttoned until there’s some motivation to tell,” says Tognazzini. “There’s some underlying reason to tell about someone you have some dirt on.”

The sheriff called Torres in Monterey and reported the elephant seal shooting information. Torres had received the forensic ballistic report from the Department of Fish and Game laboratory in Santa Cruz three days before – on May 20. The lab reported that the weight and ¼-inch diameter of the bullet fragments were consistent with a high-powered rifle, possibly .223 caliber. Torres had the report in hand when he got the sheriff’s call May 23. He needed another bullet to tie the case together.

The bullet that killed the dog was the crucial connection to the gun and its owner. 

Torres went out to collect two-week-old-remains of the dog. Its body had largely decomposed. What hadn’t been scavenged by wild animals was putrefying in the sun.  . As disgusting as the job was, Torres was determined to retrieve the bullet to get the evidence he needed for a conviction, and he did.

He sent the bullet to the Santa Cruz Fish & Game lab. Within days, ballistics specialists determined it was the same kind of bullet as the ones that killed the seals.

Although Joe, their star witness, was unstable, his story checked out in every detail.

“Every bit of information that he provided turned out to be true,” says Tognazzini. “He never provided anything inaccurate.”

Added Torres: “If that guy had kept the information to himself, the investigation could have stalled.”

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To close the loop on their investigation, Torres and Tognazzi had to get their hands on Ben’s 22-250 rifle. Ben’s daughter, Sarah, had remarried. Her new husband, Tom Fielder (a pseudonym), was in possession of Ben’s rifle as well as Joe’s air rifles. He kept them in Kern County. Torres and the Kern County sheriff needed to persuade Tom to turn the rifles over to law enforcement. They concocted a plan that, they hoped, would get them Ben’s guns. A sheriff’s deputy would knock on Tom’s door at his home. The deputy would question him sympathetically, telling him that he was sure that Tom would want to prevent Joe from doing any more damage during one of his drinking sprees, perhaps harming himself and others with wild gun-shooting antics. 

Early on the morning of May 27, Torres watched from a distance as the local deputy talked to Tom. Torres was close enough to be able to watch events unfold, but not close enough to be able to overhear the conversation. But Torres was prepared to come to the sheriff’s rescue if the situation turned sour or if Tom was resistant to turning the gun over.

As Torres watched from his clandestine perch, Tom brought the guns to the front door and handed them to the deputy sheriff. He went back to the office and waited for the deputy to return. What Torres couldn’t tell from his vantage point was that the guns weren’t the ones he wanted. They were the air rifles, not serious weapons.

But the deputy insisted that there was another gun that Ben owned and Tom had in his possession. Eventually, Tom complied and led him to a fence lining Ben’s property covered with dense brush. Tom walked into the brush and retrieved the 22-250 rifle, which was wrapped in plastic, covered in dust. Now that they had the gun connected to the crime, Torres and Tognazzini had another challenge: to establish that its owner, Ben, was the shooter.

Tognazzini had reviewed video tapes from local gas stations and convenience stores for the night of May 2  and 3 , just before the dawn shooting, but hadn’t identified anyone as a suspect. “We had a narrow time line, any time over night,” says Tognazzini. “Gas stations often have video cameras that can help us. Criminals often have to fill up.”

Ben McGurdy, 67 years old in 2008, was an avid outdoorsman who didn’t see the need for government to control anything he did out in the wild – whether it was hunting, fishing or anything else he damned pleased. With that attitude, he’d tangled with Fish & Game up in Mendocino County back in 2000 for fishing salmon illegally. He’d been using barbed hooks, not the required barbless ones. Barbless hooks make it possible to release undersized salmon without injuring them, so that they can grow up. A former abalone harvester, he had spoken out against restrictions on commercial fishing. He wasn’t alone. Fishermen, relying on the ocean’s bounty for their living, fight regulation. Threats against law enforcement are common.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects all marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), sea otters and polar bears within U.S. waters. The act makes it illegal to ‘take’ marine mammals without a permit. This includes harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal, including elephant seals. 

The law enrages some commercial fishermen who have to stand by helplessly watching sea lions and harbor seals steal fish from their nets. But for seal lovers, the law is a life saver. Today, hundreds of thousands of sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals, which are not endangered, are as protected as scarce blue whales. In 1972, when the Act was originally passed, there were around 10,000 sea lions. By 2008, there were over 200,000. Today, NOAA estimates there are around 238,000.

Elephant seals were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 19th century. Although the population probably was reduced to fewer than 100 individuals along the way, elephant seals were able to recover. By 1960 there were about 15,000. In 2008, there were around 150,000.

California sea lions compete with commercial fishermen for prey. While sea lions unquestionably eat fish, blaming them for the decline in fish is debatable. Protected zones that forbid any fishing provide places for fish to breed and grow to let their populations recover from overfishing. Taking every last fish not only eliminates the fisherman’s job, it collapses the ecosystem in which the fish play a role. In 2011, NOAA authorized Washington and Oregon to kill up to 85 sea lions that are eating salmon and steelhead below the Columbia Dam, but not to protect the fishermen. It’s to protect the fish.

Fisheries are protected around Morro Bay and the rest of the Central Coast, but commercial fishing is allowed outside those lines. The creation of the National Marine Sanctuary in 1992 established a protected zone, a marine park bigger than Yellowstone in the ocean. Fishing in the ocean outside Morro Bay declined over the years, going from 15 million pounds caught in 1985 to 1.2 million pounds by 2006.

In September 2007, after months of contentious meetings, 29 new Marine Protected Areas, 204 square miles, went into effect along California’s Central Coast. Nine no-take State Marine Reserves were established within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes Piedras Blancas. Fish started increasing, and in 2010 Morro Bay fishermen caught 3.5 million pounds.

In 2008, the Chinook Salmon run in the Sacramento River was a record low. The fish return from the ocean in spring to spawn in the river. Salmon had been declining for years, but in 2008 the return was described as a “collapse.”  The minimum conservation goal for Sacramento fall Chinook is 122,000 to 180,000 spawning adult salmon, the number needed to return to the river to maintain the health of the run. In 2008, even with all ocean salmon fishing closed, the return of fall run Chinook to the Sacramento was projected to be only 54,000.

The season was officially cancelled by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on May 1, 2008, two days before the shooting. The closing was a foregone conclusion after the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the decision-making management agency, voted to close all salmon fishing April 11.

 “For him, the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act had an effect on the closing of the salmon season,” says Tognazzini, who spoke to Ben about this issue on the phone. “He was pretty upset there was no salmon season.” Tognazzini says Ben came close to confessing the crime, but never offered a direct and unambiguous confession.

Interviews with local people confirmed that Ben was in in Morro Bay the weekend the seals were shot. “Animosity built up over the years over fishing restrictions,” says Torres. “That year, the salmon season was shut down and that infuriated this person.”

Elephant seals are rarely a target for fishermen. They don’t eat the species commercial fishermen catch. Elephant seals prefer Humboldt squid, which they catch deep in the ocean. They are deep divers, hunting at 1,000 feet and deeper. They eat fish as well, but the hagfish, rays and small sharks they eat aren’t in demand for commercial catch. The elephant seals that were shot weren’t competitors to fishermen in any way.

“I don’t think that you will find fishermen who have any issue with elephant seals,” says Mark Tognazzini, a commercial fisherman on Morro Bay and Todd’s brother. “What they’re consuming isn’t in this area. I’ve never seen or even talked to anyone who had any issues with elephant seals.”

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Ben’s rifle and the bullets taken from the elephant seal heads and the dog were sent to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, for final analysis.

The lab is the only one that is dedicated entirely to forensic analysis of wildlife crime evidence. Established in 1989, it set up the protocols and data that meet legal standards to give law enforcement the facts needed to prosecute wildlife crimes.

Its final report, completed in August 2008, confirmed that the bullets that killed the seals and the dog could have come from the same gun and that the rifle “could not be ruled out” as the weapon. That meant the investigators had sufficient evidence to bring the case to a federal grand jury, seeking an indictment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As NOAA investigators and lawyers were gearing up to prosecute Ben McGurdy, the seal killer, who had returned to the Central Valley, he collapsed and died of a heart attack in July 2009. As abruptly as the seals were shot, NOAA closed the case and it remained closed until 2011, when I started prying into the elephant seal killing case.  NOAA had its reasons for not reporting the case to the public. “The general public has an appreciation for the animals they see,” says Tognazzini. “But in wildlife justice, the work gets done behind the scenes.”

The shock and horror of the crimes have passed into history at Piedras Blancas. Vultures eventually ate the stinking, decomposing seal bodies and the bones disappeared into the sand. Only a few visitors were ever aware of the crime, and the docents who remember it don’t care to talk about it. For them, any reference to the elephant seal killings reminds them of a cruel act of violence they’d just as soon forget.

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