COLLIER COUNTY — Four Navy officers-in-training and another man who shot and killed 21 migratory birds near Goodland last year were sentenced Wednesday to six months’ probation.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gustave DiBianco also ordered Zachary James Mato, 23, of Marco Island, Pensacola residents Cullen Mark Shaughnessy, 23, and Joseph W. Gursky Jr., 24, and Corpus Christi residents Alexander B. Wilhelm, 25, and Mark Lewis McClure, 24, to pay $5,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to benefit shore bird conservation in or near Collier County.
The plea deal also requires the men to perform 150 hours of community service in conservation and ecology and to complete a hunter education certification class. If they fulfill all those conditions before six months, their unsupervised probation can be terminated early.
DiBianco, who sits in Fort Myers, imposed the sentence after the men pleaded guilty Wednesday to the unlawful killing of migratory birds, a Class B misdemeanor.
“We’re pretty happy with it,” Fish and Wildlife Capt. Jayson Horadam said of the plea agreement. “We spelled out what we felt was proper, correct and just. Obviously, you always want more, but you have to be realistic. It’s a misdemeanor.”
“It’s all about (wildlife) protection and making sure people understand that’s our job and people of the state of Florida want their resources protected,” he added. “We take it very seriously.”
The pleas and sentences brought to an end a case that gained national headlines in February 2009, when officers responding to a volley of gunshots at a bird rookery near Goodland described watching from the road as birds dropped from the sky.
“It was hard for us to comprehend,” Horadam said of the mass killing, adding that the officers who worked on the case never gave up and worked hard for justice.
The birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Officers said 30 were shot and 21 were recovered: 11 White Ibis, three Double-crested Cormorants, two Little Blue Herons, a Tricolored Heron, a Snowy Egret, a Cattle Egret, and two Tree Swallows.
The plea agreement says the men disputed killing 30 birds.
Shaughnessy, Gursky, Wilhelm and McClure were Navy pilots-in-training when the birds were killed on Feb. 17, 2009.
The defendants faced up to six months in federal prison and $15,000 fines for the misdemeanor charge, but were sentenced as part of a plea agreement negotiated by the men’s defense attorneys, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Michelland and Managing Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy.
Defense attorney Lee Hollander of Naples, who represented Wilhelm, said there wasn’t much negotiating in terms of the plea agreement, but he called it fair.
“The big fear for the four U.S. Naval air trainees is being severed from the service,” Hollander said, adding that the men pleaded to a Class B misdemeanor, not a Class A misdemeanor or a felony. “It’s up to their base commanders in Corpus Christi and Pensacola.”
Navy officials have said they’re conducting their own investigation and the men were placed on administrative hold pending the outcome of the federal case.
“This was a bunch of guys who got together and made a mistake,” Hollander said, adding that two were training to be Naval combat fighters, while the others were learning to be a pilot and a navigator. “There was no alcohol involved. But it was a strict liability offense, so if you shoot one of those birds, you’re guilty.”
Defense attorney Brian Dickerson of Naples, who represented Mato and Shaughnessy, and McClure’s attorney, Martin Raskin of Coral Gables, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Gursky, who had no lawyer, represented himself and also could not be reached.
The plea agreement says the men went to Rookery Bay National Estuary Research Reserve with nine guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and a small boat. According to tests by the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the birds died from multiple shotgun pellet wounds.
The case was investigated by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers.
The men were indicted March 24, nearly a year after the State Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges because the property where the shootings occurred wasn’t properly marked with “No Trespassing” signs and none of the arresting officers witnessed the shootings.
Only Mato admitted shooting the birds, but his statements were inadmissible and couldn’t be used against him because he’d made them before officers read him his Miranda Rights.
The men were charged after Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Dan Stermen heard gunshots at a bird rookery off County Road 92, between U.S. 41 East and Goodland, near Marco Island.
It was about 5 p.m. and Stermen and officers who responded watched from the road as birds dropped from the sky. About a half-hour later, seven people, including a 24-year-old East Naples woman, emerged from the rookery, with Mato, Shaughnessy and Gursky in a boat that contained guns; two were not indicted.
Officers went to where the shooting took place and found the carcasses. At the time, an officer said the shooters were “sitting in the birds’ bedroom waiting for ... the birds to return to go to bed for the night.”