FWC Officers Discuss Arrests in Protected Bird Killings
FWC Officers talk about their arrest and ...
GOODLAND — Five men, including four Navy officers-in-training, who were accused of shooting and killing 21 wading birds near Goodland in February 2009 were indicted Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The men were each charged with misdemeanor unlawful killing of migratory birds, which are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If convicted, the men face up to six months in federal prison and $15,000 fines.
“We have indicted them, and we fully expect to convict them, but they are innocent until proven guilty,” U.S. Attorney spokesman Steve Cole said. “Migratory birds are beautiful things. We take them just as serious. It’s part of Florida, it's part of nature, it's part of why we live here, and destroying these beautiful bids is an outrage.”
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Michelland in Fort Myers. No court date has been set, Cole said.
The five men were identified as: Zachary J. Mato, 23, of Marco Island; Cullen M. Shaughnessy, 23, of Pensacola (previously of Marco Island); Joseph W. Gursky, 23, of Pensacola; Alexander B. Wilhelm Jr., 25, of Corpus Christi, Texas; and Mark L. McClure, 24, also of Corpus Christi.
Shaughnessy, Gursky, Wilhelm and McClure previously were identified as Navy pilots-in-training. Two people who had initially been arrested as part of the case — Stephanie M. Meads of East Naples and Keith G. Lisa of New Jersey — weren’t mentioned in Wednesday’s indictment.
The indictment comes nearly a year after the State Attorney’s Office in Southwest Florida declined to pursue charges against the men because the property where the shootings were said to have occurred wasn’t properly marked “No Trespassing,” and because none of the law enforcement officers who made the arrests actually witnessed anyone shoot the birds — ibises, swallows, cormorants and egrets.
Mato was the only one of the group who admitted to shooting the birds, but his statements were deemed inadmissible in court because they were made before officers read him his Miranda Rights.
“I never had any doubt that it would end, at least in indictment,” Fish and Wildlife Capt. Jayson Horadam said of the case.
The case made national headlines in February 2009 after a Fish and Wildlife officer heard a volley of gunshots coming from a bird rookery off County Road 92, between U.S. 41 East and Goodland, near Marco Island. 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. One officer said at the time that the alleged shooters “were sitting in the birds’ bedroom waiting for ... the birds to return to go to bed for the night.”
“This is a tremendous recognition of the hard work of the (Fish and Wildlife) officers,” Fish and Wildlife Maj. Alfredo Escanio said. “It’s been over a year since the case was made, but because of our outstanding partnerships with the federal government, we were able to see that justice will be served.”
Attempts to reach Marco Island residents Mato and Shaughnessy were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Officials from the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, where the Navy officers-in-training were stationed at the time of the initial arrests, also couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. However, in December Commander Vic Bindi of the command said the “careers of these young officers will continue to be ... watched over until the charges are settled.”