Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles about people and issues that were in the news in 2009, but haven’t been recently. Have a story suggestion? Post it below this story at naplesnews.com.
To some readers they were “evil” and “heartless,” and deserved to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
To others, the entire case of seven people — including four U.S. Navy pilots-in-training — accused of wantonly shooting and killing 21 wading birds near Goodland in February was overblown. Either way, the story struck a nerve.
Though the State Attorney’s Office announced in May that it declined to file charges against the accused shooters due to a lack of evidence, they are not out of the woods yet.
Gabriella Ferraro, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said her agency is still pursuing civil charges under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Federal prosecutors have been reviewing the case, including some evidence that may have not been reviewed by the state, Ferraro said.
Though the case hasn’t been in the news for six months, Ferraro said it remains a priority for her agency.
“It’s never left our radar screen, and we know how important it is for the people of Collier County,” she said. “There is a deep appreciation for wildlife and nature for the people of Collier.”
The case made headlines in mid-February after an FWC officer heard a volley of gunshots coming from a bird rookery off County Road 92, between U.S. 41 East and Goodland. Responding officers watched from the road as birds dropped from the sky.
About a half hour later, seven people emerged from the rookery, three of them in a boat containing guns. Officers went back to where the shooting took place and found the carcasses of 21 birds that had been shot.
Four of the seven were arrested on charges of misdemeanor trespassing: Stephanie M. Meads, 24, of East Naples; Mark L. McClure, 24, of Osprey, Fla.; Keith G. Lisa, 32, of New Jersey; and Alexander B. Wilhelm, 25, of Maryland.
The other three were charged with felony armed trespassing: Zachary J. Mato, 23, of Marco Island; Cullen M. Shaughnessy, 23, of Marco Island; and Joseph W. Gursky, 23, of New York.
It was later determined that Gursky, McClure, Shaughnessy, and Wilhelm were Navy pilots-in-training at the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, Fla.
Commander Vic Bindi of the command said that military charges were brought against the pilots-in-training, and that the case has been adjudicated. He would not discuss the results, citing privacy issues.
However, Bindi did say that the four are still with the Navy at different commands, and have continued their flight training program. But the Navy continues to keep an eye on the case.
“This is a very serious situation,” Bindi said. “The Navy still is very sensitive to these issues, very concerned and interested in the outcome of the federal charges. The careers of these young officers will continue to be, how should I put it, they will be watched over until the charges are settled.”
Attempts to reach Collier residents Meads and Shaughnessy for comment at home and on the phone were unsuccessful. When reached outside his Marco Island home as he got into his pickup in mid-December, Mato closed the door and drove away.
Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan_mills/