'I lied to the feds': Interviews detail jaguar-capture cover-up

Fired biologist says deception grew from fear
2010-05-09T00:00:00Z 'I lied to the feds': Interviews detail jaguar-capture cover-upTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 09, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A cover-up of how jaguar scat was placed near the site of jaguar Macho B's capture started in spring 2009, in a Sierra Vista meeting between Thorry Smith and Emil McCain that lasted up to four hours.

And it was motivated by fear.

That's Smith's version of how he, a since-fired state biologist, and McCain, a private jaguar researcher, decided not to tell federal investigators the truth about the placement of jaguar scat at remote camera sites. The cameras lay near the area where Macho B was captured in February 2009, in an oak woodland canyon southwest of Tucson near the Mexican border.

Smith found Macho B in the trap while working for the Arizona Game and Fish Department on a study that was supposed to trap only mountain lions and black bears for radio collars.

Game and Fish initially said the jaguar's capture was accidental, but Smith and a private research technician later said they believed it was intentional and that the cat was lured by female jaguar scat placed at or near the trap. The 15- or 16-year-old jaguar, the last known to live in the wild in the United States, had to be euthanized 12 days after the capture.

Smith's account was laid out in transcripts of seven interviews with Arizona Game and Fish Department investigators between July 2009 and January 2010 that the department recently released in redacted form.

McCain didn't return phone calls or reply to an e-mail from the Star seeking his comments on Smith's interviews.

The two concocted a cover story for the feds that no jaguar scat had been placed anywhere in the area of the trap site and that the one piece of scat Smith found was an old one, Smith told Game and Fish investigators.

The department fired Smith on March 19 of this year, partly because he violated written and verbal orders by talking to McCain about the capture despite the U.S. investigation, Game and Fish said.

"This has been killing me. … Well, I lied to the feds about it. Scared to death," Smith told the state investigators last July 14, according to an interview transcript. "You know, Emil and I came up with, this is bad. The department is going to look so bad."

At another point in the same interview, Smith said, "We came up with a story and it's just been eating on me and I just couldn't live with it."

The next day, Smith told Game and Fish interviewers that his cover-up effort was just a moment of weakness and he has regretted it ever since, the transcript says. "That was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life, clearly, you know."

He said he had talked to federal investigators twice since March 2009.

Smith's interviews were part of an internal Game and Fish investigation of the capture. It has been conducted separately from a federal criminal investigation of Macho B's capture and subsequent death by euthanization and whether it violated the Endangered Species Act. Neither probe is finished.

None of Smith's comments to state investigators can be used against him in a subsequent criminal investigation, Game and Fish interviewers told him in these sessions.

But whether or not he had that protection, he told interviewers on July 14, 2009 that "I was going to come out and tell you guys. I can't lie to you guys."

Smith described one phone conversation that occurred after allegations made by research technician Janay Brun were published in the Arizona Daily Star on April 2, 2009. Brun told the Star that she had put female jaguar scat directly at the eventual Macho B trap site at McCain's orders, which McCain vehemently denied.

Smith also described meeting with McCain over dinner in Sierra Vista on March 31, after Brun's allegations had been reported to Game and Fish but before they were published in the newspaper.

Until that point, Smith said he had believed the capture was accidental and that he was stunned to learn from McCain that female scat had been placed nearby. "My heart just fell through the floor, right there," Smith said in the July 14 transcript.

Before that happened, "I felt clean on this whole thing. I felt fine with this. I felt the department acted in the way it should have," Smith told Game and Fish inspectors later in the same interview.

Brun told the Star just last Thursday that she has now been warned by federal investigators that she could face prosecution for her role in the capture.

Prior to Macho B's capture, McCain, Brun and others working for the non-profit Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project had for several years been getting pictures of the jaguar using remote cameras.

One of the last if not the last known picture taken of the jaguar before he was captured was on Feb. 4, 2009 at a spot 12 miles north of the capture site in the Tumacacori Mountains southwest of Tucson, close to the Mexican border. The capture occurred on Feb. 18.

When a questioner from Game and Fish asked Smith in a second interview last July 15 whose idea it was to make up a cover story, Smith replied that "we were both part of it" and that they were both on the fence, according to the interview transcript.

"I remember saying, you know, I would rather tell the truth. And I remember him saying 'sometimes you can't tell the truth'. I remember him say again, 'well, what do you want to do?' I remember it going back and forth, you know?"

Smith was asked what was causing their dilemma.

"Having the department be in a bad spot. We had our whole foundation that it was an inadvertent capture. Suddenly it's like - it's like when you're a kid in junior high and someone pulls your shorts, you cover up. That was my reaction," Smith said in the transcript.

"Right away, you know, the papers were on us. The public hates us. You know, all these things getting said in the department and then Janay's (Brun's) statement and then Emil the same day coming out with something else. I was just blindsided on all sides. I just caved."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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