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Wildlife's the least of their worries

Published Aug. 31, 2005

They used to be known as "grouper troopers." These days, though, the law enforcement officers who work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also protect deer, bears and other wildlife. The FWC employs about 800 law enforcement officers to look out for 672 species of wildlife, 208 species of freshwater fish and more than 500 saltwater fish species.

Wildlife officers patrol more than 37-million acres of public and private land, 8,246 miles of tidal coastline, 12,000 miles of rivers and streams, 3-million acres of lakes and ponds and 11,000 miles of canals.

Sometimes the duty can be hazardous. This year's wildlife officer of the year, Randy Bowlin, was involved in a shootout with a murder suspect. Another officer, John Giles, was honored last year because he gunned down a rabid bobcat that was attacking a park ranger.

Often, walking this beat can be a little offbeat. Here are a few examples taken from some of the weekly law enforcement activity summaries issued in February by the FWC's public information officers.

_ CRAIG PITTMAN, Times staff writer

CHARLOTTE COUNTY: On Sat, Feb. 22, Lt. Marty Redmond and Officer Chris Roszkowiak responded to a request for assistance from the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office regarding a traffic accident in Port Charlotte. The officers found a damaged compact sedan stuck in the mud off the road, skid marks, and a mailbox that had been run over. They also discovered a live six-foot alligator in the back seat of the sedan. The deputy on scene advised that according to witnesses, the driver of the vehicle had fled on foot shortly before his arrival.

When the Florida Highway Patrol arrived, witnesses were located who provided descriptions of the female suspect. Witnesses also advised that the suspect asked them not to call the police and that she wanted to know where the nearest lake was so she could let her alligator go. FWC officers photographed, secured, and removed the alligator from the vehicle and turned it over to FWC trapper John French. While canvassing the area, a trooper and deputy located the suspect in a nearby residence. The suspect, who had disrobed and was wearing only a bath towel, said she was not going to be arrested. The suspect was arrested and returned to the scene where witnesses positively identified her.

The FHP trooper transported the suspect to the county jail where Lt. Redmond charged her with possession of an alligator and multiple traffic violations. While en route to the jail, the suspect admitted she had been drinking and asked the deputy why she was being arrested. The deputy told her he was just transporting her for the FWC and FHP, that he was not arresting her, and was not sure what the charges were. The suspect then became angry and said, "Since you're not arresting me, I'm gonna tell you what happened and you can't use it against me." The suspect made numerous utterances including the fact that she had captured the alligator after hitting it with her car and wanted to rehabilitate it and keep it for a pet. After arriving at the jail, Lt. Redmond read the suspect her Miranda rights and she invoked her rights, refusing to answer any questions or provide any explanations.

SEMINOLE COUNTY: On February 1, Officer Tonya Gier responded to a boating accident at the Monroe Harbor Marina at Lake Monroe. The subject causing the boating accident was operating a 38-foot houseboat when he struck six other vessels, a dock, and an electrical box. The subject was arrested for boating under the influence and booked into the Seminole County Jail. Additional charges are pending at this time for BUI with property damage, leaving the scene of an accident, and violation of navigational rules 5, 6, and 8.

DUVAL COUNTY: On Feb. 12 at 1 p.m., officers Dave Rosado and Brad Givens were in the woods behind Winn Dixie on San Pablo and Beach Boulevard when they heard what sounded like gunshots. The officers drove around to the front of the Winn Dixie store and observed a van out in the middle of the parking lot. One person was moving around the vehicle and the officers noticed sea gulls flying overhead . . . The officers found the subject in possession of bottle rockets and even had one go off in his hand. The officers felt that the subject was firing the bottle rockets in an attempt to hit the sea gulls, but were unable to prove his intent. Officer Rosado arrested the man on use of exploding works.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY: On Wed., Feb. 19, Officer (Richard) Scilabro found two pickup trucks parked on the side of the road next to some swamp land near U.S. Hwy 41 in Ruskin. Surveillance of the vehicles failed to show any activity. But Officer Scilabro decided to investigate the area where he found and tracked the subjects into a swamp. When the subjects saw the officer, one yelled "the police." Four subjects dropped what they were doing and ran into the swamp. Officer Scilabro was able to track down one of the subjects. The officer had the subject in custody call to the others and reveal themselves. The three remaining subjects finally turned themselves in to Officer Scilabro. After searching the area, it was determined the subjects were harvesting aquatic plants illegally for a local horticulture nursery. They had 15 Hefty garbage bags full of aquatic plants. The subjects were charged accordingly and replaced the plants.

PUTNAM COUNTY: On February 23, Officer Chad Albritton saw a man fishing from the bank of a creek near Hwy 17 in east Palatka. He drove past the man, stopping his patrol vehicle at a safe location along the highway. Officer Albritton began walking back to where he had last seen the man fishing. He immediately noticed that the man had disappeared. As he got closer, he heard some bubbling noises and saw the man pop to the surface in the middle of the creek dog paddling. The man went under again for a few seconds then popped to the surface another time. By now Officer Albritton had made his way down the embankment to the water's edge. He stepped out into the water and grabbed the man's arm, pulling him ashore. As it turns out, the man had tried to grab his rod and reel, and instead tumbled into the creek just as Officer Albritton was parking his patrol vehicle. Unable to swim, the man struggled valiantly until Officer Albritton arrived to pull him ashore. After the man was dried off and had a chance to catch his breath, he was issued a citation for no freshwater fishing license.