Warden's Christmas Party Plans Turn into Undercover Sting Operation

After getting dressed for a Christmas party, ODWC game warden and author Carlos Gomez had to go undercover when word came of a local resident illegally selling venison for cash. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

An Oklahoma game warden recently planned to attend a Christmas holiday party with family and other game warden friends; that changed when a tip came in, causing the warden to go undercover for a sting operation

Changing into civilian clothes to attend a game warden families’ Christmas party would prove to be convenient timing for me after learning of some urgent and covert work that was needed.

Our area Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) game wardens and their families were all about to celebrate Christmas - and the completion of another deer gun season! when a citizen from a nearby community called in. He was reporting that a man had been coming around selling deer meat to the locals.

"You can't do that, can you?" the caller had asked.

I knew instantly that my Christmas party attendance plans would have to be put on hold and my wife understood.

The caller gave a modest description of the meat peddler and the truck he drove saying “… he was just here and was approaching people at the local farm store and at Torchy’s Bar and Grill.”

Then the caller added: "He was describing backstraps and burger and sold some to my buddy. If you hurry over here, you can be here at the bar when he gets back. He left with someone but is supposed to come back with more pretty soon.”

Fortunately, I was dressed and ready to go, so I quickly headed to the bar. The caller and I only knew each other by clothing descriptions, so on the way to the pub, I notified the local police of my impending ‘special op’.

They understood the impromptu nature of the deal and agreed to have uniformed officers standing ready to roll nearby as my backup. One officer called me to confirm some quick details and we agreed that I would text him on when to roll in at the right moment.

Within minutes, I was sitting on a barstool next to a guy and his wife that I had only briefly talked to on the phone. With eye contact and the ever so slight raising of our chins, a mutual sign seemed to be exchanged that we knew each other.

The pub was empty except for the dozen or so patrons lining the barstools down from my new friends. It was only 3 o’clock in the afternoon, after all, and within minutes, everyone was exchanging opinions and questions about the bitcoin currently in the news. I’d only been there a few minutes and was now sipping beverages with a dozen strangers. Everyone seemed to have a few comments and views on the news when suddenly, as if I were deaf, my new pal tapped at my foot and nodded.

The group topic had shifted from bitcoin to the qualities and pricing of "backstrap medallions.” My new friend’s buddy at the far end of the bar was bragging to everyone how delicious and inexpensive the deer steaks were, and though he held a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, he also asserted how healthy the meat was supposed to be for you!

“I’m not a hunter but I know delicious steak when I taste it” the man told his audience.

Moments later, right on cue it seemed and as if I were watching a high school play take place, in walks “the star of the show!” My tipster looked at me again, with bugged eyes I might add, as if I might be blind too.

Interestingly enough, this 34-year old man would later admit that his customer base was chosen from specifically selected locations because he believed they would likely be non-hunters and be ignorant of game laws.

The seller immediately approached his previously established customer making a cash deal in plain sight of everyone and without any hesitation. Cash for deer steaks was swapped out at the far end of the bar the bartender even helped them make change! - and the salesman then said, “Who else?”

Moments later, the “venison vendor” would be negotiating with your usual, run-of-the-mill, Oklahoma game warden, except I was wearing my Christmas-party duds instead of my uniform.

Making a deal on his remaining product, the salesman was jovial and talkative, but not before my text message signal had been sent to the local police officer. The frozen merchandise lay strewn across the bar and hadn't even been bagged up yet when two uniformed police officers suddenly entered the pub and approached us.

Just as quick, I might add, the suspect was cuffed and being escorted out the door.

Several patrons were gasping and a few even cursed at the unexplainable and swift police action. I stood and identified myself to them, informing the now very attentive audience how it was a violation of wildlife laws for "… even offering venison for sale".

It would turn out that the seller was not even a hunter but a game thief of another kind. His father, a hunter who had recently and legally harvested several deer, had given access to the prized meat in an effort to help feed the son’s family.

But instead, his son decided it would be a bigger benefit to pilfer the commercially processed meat from his dad's chest freezer and turn it into some quick cash.

I guess that sort of thing is the very same thing that caused the near total demise of our nation's wildlife resources over a century ago and it still goes on today.

The man would tell me, just as we were about to part company, that “I should of known something was not right because you just didn’t fit in there at that place …you were dressed like you were going to a Christmas party or something!”

Like game warden stories? Watch “Wardens” on Outdoor Channel. You also can watch past episodes of “Wardens” on MyOutdoorTV.com.

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