An investigation into the alleged illegal taking of alligators on Lake Wimico last summer has been closed by State Attorney Glenn Hess with minor charges filed against two local men.
No charges were filed against any employee of the Board of County Commissioners, though Commissioner Carmen McLemore, county attorney Jeremy Novak and Tourist Development Council executive director Jennifer Jenkins were identified early in the investigation as being present during the July 2013 incident.
Though investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission never identified McLemore, Novak and Jenkins as subjects or targets in the investigation, a review of the case file assembled by the FWC and SAO highlights that the investigation brought push-back.
In the end, the FWC moved to charge two county men, Stephen Page and Brad “Wes” Halley, with failing to provide all required information while taking two gators under a private lands permit and using a firearm after dark in taking the gators.
The charges against Halley were dropped. Page still faces the misdemeanor charges, according to the SAO.
But investigators, according to the file, acknowledged that with a sitting county commissioner, a county attorney and a county agency head involved, as well as a former FWC employee under whose private permit the gators were allegedly taken, they were conducting an investigation that was potentially of the highest priority classification under the agency’s investigative system.
Written reports from two meetings with local officials, in particular, show that the investigation created heartburn.
Investigators and the SAO
The first meeting, on Aug. 14, 2013, was detailed by Steve Thomas, an investigator with the Northwest Florida division of the FWC.
The meeting was with FWC investigators, Assistant State Attorney Gary Pack and SA employee James Conway.
Pack began the meeting, Thomas wrote, by asking if any in attendance had a recording device or was recording the meeting.
After being ensured no one was, Thomas wrote, Pack told investigators “the investigation was a political nightmare, that people were upset and that we needed to back off.”
Thomas said he told the attorney that those upset were not even suspects and investigators could not treat the case differently than if those involved were “Joe Schmoe.”
“Anyone involved had to be treated like anyone else would be,” Thomas wrote he told Pack.
Pack questioned why Commissioner Joanna Bryan had been contacted and was told it was to provide support for Jenkins.
(Several times in the case file the FWC investigators express a perception that Jenkins was being “intimidated” by McLemore. They had contacted Commission chair Tan Smiley to encourage him to provide support to Jenkins to answer questions and provide information. When Bryan was contacted for the same reason, the report stated, she conveyed that Novak had shown her photos on his cell phone of the taken gator. Bryan later raised the issue during a BOCC meeting to fiery debate.)
“Conway then turned to me (Thomas) and started pointing his finger at my face, telling me, you should know better, you should know better than to do this,” Thomas wrote.
Pack was told investigators had a confession from Page that he shot a gator after dark. Pack wondered why Page was not under arrest. Investigators said it was not sufficient evidence for an arrest, which Pack should have known.
Pack was told Halley wished to make a statement and Pack told investigators to set up the interview at the State Attorney’s Office and suggested routes for investigators to take in trying to locate computer and video evidence.
Investigators and county administration
The following day an investigator – believed to be Thomas as he was acting as point for the investigation – met with FWC Major Bruce Cooper, county administrator Don Butler and deputy county administrator Michael Hammond for what was described by the FWC investigator as an “unproductive” meeting.
The subject was a letter sent by Butler to the FWC requesting the removal of all FWC vessels and vehicles from county property.
During a subsequent debate about the request during a BOCC meeting, Butler said the letter was actually a follow-up to a similar letter of 2010, an assertion repeated during the August meeting.
As noted by the FWC investigator, that earlier letter had been rescinded. The county has again rescinded the request since the second letter.
According to the FWC narrative of the meeting, “Hammond and Butler set the tone of the meeting by stressing to us that Gulf County and its employees had nothing to do with any alligator hunting officially.”
If a county employee was involved, they added, it was on their own time and using personal equipment.
“They both stressed this point over and over,” the narrative continued.
Hammond and Butler said the FWC was using too much water when washing vehicles, causing ruts, and placing garbage in the dumpsters “as reasons why they wanted us to remove the vessels.”
“No plausible answer was given” when the FWC officials asked why the issues had not been raised previously in order to provide the agency an opportunity to correct the problem.
The investigator wrote that he mentioned to Butler and Hammond that it seemed strange to have the request to remove equipment come just days after the agency initiated its investigation into the gator-taking allegations.
Butler and Hammond said the investigation had nothing to do with it and referred to the 2010 letter.
Tip leads to investigation
That county employees were involved with the gator taking came from the initial anonymous tip to the FWC about the incident.
Jenkins, McLemore and Novak were identified by the tipster.
Jenkins was approached by investigators who believed, according to the case file, that she might have more information as she was identified as having filmed the taking of two gators on Lake Wimico.
Jenkins acknowledged the general details during an initial discussion with investigators as well as the existence of a video, but said she was not comfortable showing the video to investigators until after she talked to Novak, the county attorney.
When investigators checked back, they were notified that Novak’s advice was that the video fell outside the parameters of the Sunshine Law and would only be produced under subpoena.
Investigators noted they were troubled by Novak’s dual roles, having been identified as being present during the incident – Novak, according to the case file, told Bryan he had shot one of the gators – and providing legal advice to possible witnesses.
Further attempts to speak to Jenkins, the investigators noted, were unsuccessful and they raised the possibility that Jenkins was being pressured by McLemore.
Investigators were keen to speak to Jenkins again after taking the statement from Halley. Halley said one of those on the trip that night had fallen in the water and the gator had gotten in the boat as reasons a gun was used to kill at least one of the gators.
Investigators ultimately obtained a copy of at least a portion of the video.
Halley, on whose camera the video was shot, told investigators he was surprised when he got his camera back and the SIMS card had been erased. He had wanted to see the video, investigators detailed.