Behind the Badge is a regular series of perspective stories by Oklahoma game warden Carlos Gomez. In this article, Gomez recounts his experiences from his first nighttime poaching bust.
By Carlos Gomez, Oklahoma Game Warden
Confronting six armed and drunken men all by yourself, while they’re in the act of carving-up an illegal deer that was spotlighted, may not be easy but it’s our job. The showdown occurred one late April night, in a remotely located barn that was a full quarter-mile from any road. Not only was I alone, no help was coming or even knew where I was!
Everyone remembers their “first,” right? Your first dog, deer, car wreck … you get the point. Those are events that will remain with you your entire life.
Well, for game wardens, I’m sure that would include their first big night-poaching bust. When it comes right down to it, and it’s time for the rubber to meet the road, when a game warden has to jump out of the bushes and yell, “gotcha!” it can really be a moment that tests your nerve.
Game wardens usually come into the job knowing a lot of stuff, but there’s a whole lot more they’ll learn after pinning on the badge and strapping on that gun. But, one thing that cannot simply be learned is having nerve.”Nerve” is what one needs to confront the bad guys, especially when outmanned and outgunned. This challenge is heavily supported by training but before that happens, it’s born out of dedication and the commitment wardens will make when they takes their oaths.
Additionally, complicating these dangerous confrontations is the well-documented fact that wardens frequently work alone full-knowing that hope for the “backer” to arrive in time is unlikely and generally too far away to affect a dangerous outcome. And that’s even when the backer knows your remote location.
I’ll never forget the encouraging words from one of my favorite police-academy instructors spoken many years ago. He was addressing a large group of police cadets sprinkled with a few Game Warden rookies.
He said, sounding somewhat like an evangelical preacher that was all worked up, “People out there are going to expect you to do extraordinary things. Some may even believe you possess special powers … and I know as a new recruit, you may not feel that way. But, when you leave this four-month training academy, you WILL know how to ‘walk on water!’ You’ll know because we’re gonna show you where the rocks are!”
There was some smirks and snickering especially from some of the more experienced officers in the class. Some had projected an arrogant, over-confidence as if they already knew where those ‘rocks’ were. But I also had to wonder if it was a nervousness from lacking a belief the ‘rocks’ even existed.
But, as the saying goes, I was as green as the grass. The class of nearly 40 men and women had travelled from all over the state, from various police agencies, to consummate a contractual requirement completing the basic academy within their first year of police work.
Many had worked in the law field prior to the academy and some acted as though they were bored with the material and projected an attitude of already knowing what was to come. But not me. I was so new, in fact, I hadn’t even caught on to the frequent commentary me and my three warden-trainee buddies were often hearing from our police cadet classmates.
“I would NOT have YOUR job in a million years or for a million dollars!” Their expressions varied but, all of these ‘cop-gonna-be’s’ felt pretty strongly that game warden work was a suicide mission as police work goes. “You’ll be all alone, with NO backup, and you can be certain, EVERY person you confront WILL have a gun,” they would frequently say.
Part way through the academy, I’d already made my first night-hunting case, and felt pretty proud of myself. I was green as grass but had the curiosity to check out some trucks parked along a county road one night while on my way home from a long day and night-shoot training at the academy gun range. But, I’d also demonstrated the brains (and fear) to realize I needed some help!
Calling my seasoned senior partner (who had one whole year’s experience), via my sheriff’s radio, and luckily, who happened to live close by, was the obvious thing to do. Everything turned out OK. Some young men had been simply coon hunting out of season (carrying rifles in conjunction with spotlights) but they turned out to be calm and cooperative.
But now, here I was, late on a Saturday night, fresh out of the academy, and way off in the boonies. I was sitting around the kitchen table with visiting family, wearing my dress suit and tie because we were celebrating my baby daughter’s baptism. A lady who lived in a remote part of my county and had a history of drinking too much (including numerous confrontations with the police during domestics with her husband), had been given my home number by a sheriff’s dispatcher.
Lovely, I thought. She was on the phone, and yes, very drunk. But she swore that she’d seen a dead deer her neighbor had just killed. It was the month of April and though my informant had unreliable history, I knew by her insistence, there just may be something to this call this time. The police academy had convinced me that all sorts of people, everywhere, would like to kill me for little or no reason at all and drunks could be the worst.
I didn’t trust her much and refused to provide her a pledged confirmation that I was coming out. But I took down all the details and suggested I would look into it.
When I arrived in the area it was already 10:30 p.m. and my info was now an hour old. I couldn’t see any lights or activity going on anywhere in the area except for street lights that helped me locate the described suspect’s mobile home. I pulled off on a neighboring, wooded, driveway where I’d have a decent view of the area and the overhanging foliage would shadow my vehicle from an obnoxiously bright street light positioned nearby.
I hadn’t been there long when I noticed lights coming from a barn door located a quarter-mile away. I inspected it with binoculars to discover I was looking at the east side of a long, north-south structure. It had a truck parked in front and a large door that radiated a lot of light from its south end.
Then it happened!
A man’s silhouette walked out of the barn door and stood near its corner — like a sentinel. He began scanning the surrounding darkness with a flashlight, then, just as suddenly, he walked back into the barn. Was he playing the role of lookout?
That was suspicious I thought. Then, it happened again. I needed a plan, and was considering my few options when suddenly the tall, male image came out of the barn, jumped into the parked truck and began driving straight towards me. Had I been spotted? Was he investigating me? I gambled the leafy shadows had concealed my presence and sat tight.
Watching the man closely as his truck headlights approached to within 75 yards of mine, I was relieved when he stopped near the suspect’s mobile home and began rummaging through a shed. Now I was benefited from the street light as the man clearly emerged from the shed with an empty ice chest. Now, this is really starting to get interesting I thought.
He quickly returned to the barn, exited the truck and carried the item into the well-lit barn.
It raced through my head – the evidence could be getting butchered and may soon disappear! I knew I had to act. With no cell phones (in existence), and knowing my sheriff radio would not transmit without a loud engine startup for power, I locked up my truck and began a sneak. In full uniform and armed with a 6-shot revolver, I took off at a trot. I carried no shotgun, and wore no ballistic vest but, braced myself with only a just cause and my training… and a flashlight.
I dreaded that I would have to pass eerily close to that mobile home and under the glare of that bright street light but, that was the only practical approach. All was going well I thought as I passed the structure when suddenly, out of some dark section of missing, mobile home skirting, one very large, viciously barking Shepard dog lunged out at me! I scramble away from the lighted chaos and into some nearby patches of shadowy darkness. I was quite relieved the big dog’s heavy chain had stopped him just feet short of reaching my legs.
Amazed that no one investigated the barking dog, I continued toward the barn. Now several hundred yards from the safety of my truck and 2-way radio communications, I knew a showdown was imminent. I could discern multiple voices mixed with loud laughter and yelling. Numerous suspects were becoming increasingly audible and we were smack-dab in the middle of an undeveloped, unlit, section of land. In other words —middle of nowhere.
I approached the parked suspect-truck and shielded my flashlight to be very dim using a cupped hand around the beam. The bed of the truck was streaked in fresh blood and deer hair and the passenger window was still open with a plug-in spotlight still sitting in the front seat.
Now, separated only by a thin, corrugated steel wall perforated with numerous, lighted, nail holes, the laughter and loud, deep talking voices could almost be understood. I instinctively knew my primary advantage would be the element of surprise. It was ‘go time’ and there was nothing more to ponder.