Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Dan Stermen and Lt. Wayne Maahs discuss the circumstances surrounding the arrest of seven suspects in the killing of protected birds near Goodland. Watch »
COLLIER COUNTY — Seven people, including four U.S. Navy officers in training, accused in February of wantonly shooting and killing 21 protected wading birds near Goodland, are off the hook — for now.
Court records indicate the State Attorney’s Office declined to pursue trespassing charges against all seven in late April. The reason: the Rookery Bay property where the shootings are said to have occurred was not properly marked “No Trespassing.”
Also, none of the law enforcement officers who made the arrests actually witnessed anyone shoot the birds — ibises, swallows, cormorants and egrets.
“The only one who admitted to firing at the birds, Zachary Mato, made this statement in response to the officer’s questioning while in custody and before having had his Miranda Rights read to him, making this statement inadmissible against him,” Assistant State Attorney James D. Miller wrote in a letter to Capt. Jayson Horadam with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
The FWC believed at the time that there was enough evidence to charge all seven people — six men and one woman — with trespassing.
“Obviously the FWC is disappointed,” agency spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro said Monday. “However, the state has the burden of proof in these cases, and the state didn’t feel that it has sufficient evidence to pursue these charges.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife is still exploring possible civil charges under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Ferraro said.
The case made headlines in mid-February after a FWC officer heard a volley of gunshots coming from a bird rookery near Curcie Lake, off County Road 92, between U.S. 41 East and Goodland.
Two FWC officers and an officer from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection watched birds dropping from the sky, and waited near two vehicles they found parked near the Rookery Bay property. About two hours later, three people returned to the waiting vehicles by boat containing rifles, shotguns and pistols. Four more people approached on land.
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 Marie Meads, 23, of East Naples; Mark Lewis McClure, 23, of Osprey, Fla.; Keith G. Lisa, 31, of New Jersey; and Alexander Bruce Wilhelm, 24, of Maryland.
The remaining three were arrested on charges of felony armed trespassing: Zachary James Mato, 22, of Marco Island; Cullen Mark Shaughnessy, 22, of Marco Island; and Joseph W. Gursky, 22, of New York.
“Basically they were sitting in the birds’ bedroom waiting for ... the birds to return to go to bed for the night,” FWC officer Dan Sterman said in February.
Naples attorney Donald Day, who represented all seven, said the land where the shootings were said to have occurred was only recently taken over by the government. Before that, it had been a popular place for residents to shoot guns, he said.
“There were casings everywhere,” Day said of the property.
According to Miller’s letter, the state was unable to pursue the trespassing charges against the seven people because the land was not fenced, no one told them they could not be on the land, and because there were “wide gaps” between “No Trespassing” signs.
“There were signs here and there, but not in the area where these people entered,” Day said. “So legally, it cannot be enforced, the trespass charge.”
The guns believed to have been used to shoot the birds were processed for fingerprints, however none were found.
“While obvious that someone did fire at the birds, none of the individuals made any admissible statements as to who fired guns and in what matter,” Miller wrote.
Day said his clients “are not guilty under the law.” When asked if he believed his clients shot the birds, Day said, “I don’t have any knowledge that any of them did.”
He said the decision not to pursue charges may not be popular with the public.
“If they are unhappy about the law, don’t complain,” Day said. “Go to Tallahassee and change the law.”
When reached on his cell phone Monday afternoon, Shaughnessy hung up without speaking. At her East Naples apartment, Meads said “I have no comment” before going back inside and closing the door.
Attempts to reach Mato, the other Collier County resident, were unsuccessful Monday.
Navy officials confirmed in February that Gursky, McClure, Shaughnessy and Wilhelm recently graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and were enrolled at the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola in northern Florida.
The Navy was conducting its own internal investigation into the case. Lt. Doug Johnson, a public affairs officer in Pensacola, was not aware Monday that the charges had been dropped against the four officers in training, and couldn’t comment on the investigation.
“Right now, without verification, this is the first I’m hearing of it,” he said.
Despite the dropped charges, Ferraro said Fish and Wildlife officials were proud of their officers.
“Our agency truly believes our officers did the best they could under those dangerous circumstances,” Ferraro said. “We did everything we could to help further this case.”