June 1996

Bearly Believable....
FWS Raids Small Businessman

The Wall Street Journal reported in May on the bizarre case of Earl Peck, a Rocky Mount, North Carolina small businessman. versus the powerful U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Peck, a native of Connecticut, moved in 1992 to the small tobacco country town in order to care for his aging mother. Unable to find some of his favorite foods, particularly Italian sausage, in the tiny town, Peck seized upon the idea of starting a mail order food business, catering to people looking for hard to find food items.

Peck ran his business out of his mother's small, brick home, storing his wares in three freezers located in an unattached garage on the property. He licensed his business with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office, and passed an inspection by the county health department.

His market grew to include ever more exotic food items, including rattlesnake, emu and even lion meat. Peck's business flourished; he was even written up by the local newspaper.

Riding the crest of the exotic foods fad, Peck came to pride himself on obtaining for his customers a wide variety of meats. He sent his catalogs to the military, and even to the White House. Thus, when one of his early customers, the Knightdale Seafood and BBQ, which served such delectables as venison and wild boar, ordered bear meat, Peck filled the order with U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected, farm raised bear meat from a supplier in South Dakota, where selling bear meat is legal.

But when a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission officer and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent visited Knightdale Seafood about a year ago in response to a complaint, trouble brewed. The sale of bear meat is illegal in North Carolina, in that state's effort to protect its native bears. The meat was quickly traced back to the hapless Peck, who found himself on the receiving end of a government sting operation.

A state wildlife officer, posing as a customer, arranged to purchase forty pounds of bear meet from Peck. The officer made a "buy" of the forty pounds of meat for $642.84. A purchase of $350.00 constitutes a felony. The meat was analyzed at a crime lab and confirmed as bear meat. In November, a second buy was set up. Peck and his customer arranged to meet in the parking lot of a local barbecue restaurant. As the small businessman unloaded the meat from his car and transferred it to the agent's vehicle, several cars and a van descended upon him.

He was surrounded, shoved up against a car, and frisked. His pocket knife was confiscated. "I thought I was being robbed," Peck is quoted as saying. Wildlife agents then drove to the home of the accused felon, where they proceeded to search the freezers, file drawers, and even the bedroom. The contents of his computer were downloaded. He was informed the his offense carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $20,000 fine. "If they were trying to intimidate me, they did a damn good job," the Journal quotes Peck.

The searchers seized some bear meat in the raid. They also seized all his records, which he is still unable to recover; he is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Although he would like to hire an attorney, and knowing the probable high costs of doing so, he has chosen, rather, to see his accounts paid. He is fighting cancer, now in remission.

Peck, who finds it incredible that his meat could be illegal when it did not originate in North Carolina, and even carried USDA inspection tags, is hesitant to reopen his business for fear of more legal woes.

Thomas Bennett, Senior Resident Agent in the Raleigh, N.C. office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls Peck "paranoid", and suggests that all he need do to remain in business is to determine what is legal to sell in his state. In defense of the arrest, the agent notes that federal law forbids transport or sale of game if it violates a given state's laws.

Bennett, in defending his agency, points out that a raid was necessary to determine if Peck was a "major trafficker" in bear meat. "If you go straight to a guy and show your credentials, you may stumble on something big and blow your case," the story quotes the agent. Serving a search warrant, the agent maintains, "is how you gather the facts." Of his agents' behavior toward Peck at the time of the raid, Bennett says, "We couldn't have been nicer to him."

Peck disagrees, and has chosen to take his case public. He has found a champion in Rocky Mount's State Representative Gene Arnold, who has taken the agents to task for their 'abuse of power'. "This incident dramatically points out the gap between the government and the little, tiny person," he notes.

In early May, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Murphy declined to prosecute the case. Agents still could attempt to prosecute Peck's suppliers.

Suit Filed Against Animal Rights Group
Weapons Charges, Financial Mismanagement Cited

A prominent California animal rights group has been charged with misusing over $173,000 in charitable donations to provide arms to its membership. Founded in 1949, the San Fernando Valley based Mercy Crusade lobbies primarily in opposition to animal research.

The group has been accused of using its donations to amass an arsenal of assault style weapons and ammunition. In addition to the money diverted to weapons stockpiling, the suit charges that McCourt used an additional $130,000 for the maintenance of his airplane and for personal unsecured, high risk loans.

Besides asking for damages in the amount of $500,000, the suit seeks removal of McCourt and three other directors from the Mercy Crusade's board.

Its director, James McCourt, is an economics professor at Pepperdine University. Citing a once obscure law that allowed animal welfare groups to commission 'armed law enforcement agents with powers of arrest and seizure', the professor defended the practice.

McCourt told media personnel that his group stockpiled weapons in order to protect animal shelters in the event of riots similar to those which occurred in 1992 in Los Angeles.

News reports of the proliferation of such armed agents in California provoked a change in the law, however. Law enforcement powers have now been strictly limited; strict training standards have also been implemented. The California Attorney General's office filed suit after a year long federal and State investigation.