Division of Wildlife
Wildlife Officers Use DNA Evidence To Solve Cold Case
~ Bear Digs Up Skull Buried by Poacher ~
In 2002, Charles Pedraza was hunting elk in the mountains of south-central Colorado when he shot a bull moose. For almost four years he thought he got away with it. But on August 9, 2006 he had his day of reckoning when a Chaffee County judge ordered him to pay $11,391 for poaching.
Several factors helped the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) solve the case. There was high-tech DNA lab work, a couple of anonymous tips, good, old-fashioned investigative work and the help of a bear who unknowingly dug up evidence the poacher buried when he was trying to hide his crime.
Colorado District Wildlife Manager Ron Dobson knew that an occasional moose wandered the hills in his district. Over the years since they were reintroduced to Colorado in 1978 moose had been known to wander for hundreds of miles throughout the mountains and foothills. But there are only a handful of areas where moose are found in high enough numbers to warrant a hunting season.
“Every year, the Division of Wildlife reminds elk hunters that they must clearly identify their target before shooting,” said Dobson.
The trail that connected Charles Pedraza to the moose skull found by Dobson began in the summer of 2003 when a Chaffee County resident called Ron to tell him about an unusual skull laying out in the open above the Mary Murphy Mine site up on Pomeroy Gulch.
Dobson found the skull and recognized it as a moose with the antlers cut off. There were teeth marks on the skull and bear scat nearby. Dobson began looking around and found a black plastic trash bag with bits and pieces of bone fragments and moose hair that apparently had been dug up by a bear. “It was obvious to me, that whoever killed the moose went to a great deal of trouble to conceal the crime by burying portions of the hide and skull,” said Dobson. If it hadn’t been for the bear, the evidence might still be buried.
Dobson didn’t have much to go on, but he took photographs and kept the skull as evidence in the event he might get a lead someday. That day came a couple of years later when an anonymous tipster called the “Operation Game Thief” hotline with information that Charles Pedraza illegally shot a moose during the 3rd rifle elk season in 2002. What puzzled officers was that the tipster said the poaching incident took place near Walden – 200 miles away.
A search of Colorado hunting license records indicated Pedraza had a cow elk license for the Pomeroy Gulch area, but was never issued a moose hunting license. Wildlife officers attempted to contact Pedraza but found out the suspect had moved from Colorado Springs to Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
So the DOW enlisted the help of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who sent an agent in Wisconsin to talk with Pedraza. During a recorded interview in August of 2005, Pedraza was asked if he knew anything. He confessed to shooting a bull moose on Pomeroy Gulch but claimed it was an accident.
Pedraza told the investigator he didn’t report it because he was afraid the DOW wouldn’t let him keep the meat so he removed the hide and antlers and then quartered the moose and carried most of it out before burying the legs and skull.
That day four years ago when Pedraza shot the moose, it was snowing hard. For the next six months the Colorado high country would be covered with snow. As far as Pedraza knew, his trail had gone cold. He didn’t know that Dobson had found the skull and was waiting for the day he could catch the poacher.
In the summer of 2005, Pedraza stashed the pelt in a storage unit in Colorado Springs and moved to Wisconsin.
During his interview with the federal wildlife agent, Pedraza said he was planning to return to the storage shed in a few weeks to get the rest of his things.
Wildlife officers waited for him, but he never showed up.
Dobson knew he had a good case, but he still needed a major piece of evidence to cement the deal, so he got a search warrant. Dobson opened the storage unit and found a moose pelt and photos that put Pedraza at the scene of the crime. Dobson sent samples to a lab in Wyoming to run a DNA test. Bingo. The DNA from the hide in the storage shed and the skull Dobson found on the hillside were a perfect match.
With his new found evidence, Dobson phoned Pedraza at his home in Wisconsin in December of 2005 and made arrangements for Pedraza to return to Colorado to turn himself in. Pedraza asked if it would be okay to wait until Christmas as he had planned to return to Colorado for the holidays. Dobson agreed, but Pedraza didn’t show.
After the holidays, Dobson contacted Pedraza to inform him that he still had the option to turn himself in voluntarily. This time Dobson made sure Pedraza knew that it would be his last chance to settle the matter without being arrested and extradited, and having several other individuals who helped get the moose out also charged. Pedraza agreed, and over the next several weeks Pedraza’s attorney made arrangements through the Chaffee County District Attorney’s office to schedule a court date.
“This case is a good example of how a citizen’s tip can be combined with old-fashioned detective work and high-tech DNA evidence can solve a cold case,” said Dobson.
“We had a lot of good evidence, including a statement from the tipster and the skull dug up by the bear, but it was the DNA link that connected all the dots.
“Colorado takes poaching very seriously. Someone might think they have gotten away with a crime, but eventually we will track them down and bring them to justice,” he added.
Additional fines for poaching trophy-sized big game animals are the result of the so-called “Samson Law” passed in 1998. The law places mandatory fines on top of existing penalties. Anyone convicted of poaching a bull moose is subject to a $10,000 surcharge. Other fines range from $4,000 for a trophy-sized antelope buck and up to $25,000 for a bighorn sheep.
Once again during this year’s hunting seasons wildlife officers will ramp up patrols to watch for poachers. But it is not the game wardens alone who will be watching. In today’s age of cell phones and satellites, every citizen out there can help solve poaching cases.
If you have information about a poaching crime, call 1-877-COLO-OGT, Verizon cell phone users can dial #OGT, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Callers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a cash reward if the information provided leads to a citation.