Illegal FL 'gator hunts draw charges

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Gator hunts draw felony charges.

Boca Grande man charged in illegal alligator hunting

By KEVIN LOLLAR, Ft. Myers New-Press, klollar@news-press.com



GATOR: Jack Harper, right, of Boca Grande, was charged with illegal alligator hunting after an 11-month investigation by authorities. Bruce Mowatt, left, is not connected in any way with the charges. File photo


The owner of Miller’s Marina on Boca Grande was arrested Friday morning and charged with 67 felony counts involving illegal alligator hunting.

Following an 11-month investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Office of Statewide Prosecution, Jack Ridley Harper, 57, was charged with trafficking in stolen property, unlawful harvest of alligators, forgery and identity theft.

“This is not a couple of guys who decide to go out and poach alligators one night,” conservation commission Lt. Steve Mevers said. “It was an organized criminal practice to steal resources from the state. It was initiated, organized and financed by Jack Harper, and it continued over a span of several years.”

Harper’s story begins with the state’s annual Public Waters Alligator Harvest, which occurs in September.

Alligators are protected by state law and can only be killed by licensed nuisance alligator hunters or by people legally permitted to hunt during regulated events such as the Public Waters Alligator Harvest.

The hunt is set up like a lottery: Anyone wanting to participate must apply to the state; permits are issued through a random computer drawing.

Each permitted hunter receives two tags, which must be affixed to the hunter’s alligator carcasses, and harvest reports that must be returned to the state. Hunters must also return unused tags.

Irregularities in the records from the 2000 Public Waters Alligator Harvest prompted officials to investigate Harper.

According to investigators:

Harper convinced 150 people visiting his marina to apply for the year 2000 hunt and to submit his own post office box as their return addresses.

Thirty-six of those people were picked to participate in the hunt, but all the tags and harvest reports were sent to Harper. In 1999, an unspecified number of people applied for the hunt, and nine were chosen.

In all cases, Harper forged the legal permit holders’ signatures and paid the Florida-resident fee of $250 for the permits — he always had people apply as Florida residents, even those who lived out of state, because nonresident permits cost $1,000.

Sometimes, Harper contacted permit holders and said he would take them on an alligator hunt for up to $1,200; other times, instead of notifying permit holders, he used their tags and killed alligators himself.

“One person we interviewed who paid $1,200 to go on a hunt with Jack stated they killed so many alligators that they couldn’t haul them back to shore,” Mevers said. “So they put them on a buoy and marked them with a GPS,” a global positioning system used for navigation.

In virtually every case, even when he was hunting with permit holders, Harper sold the meat and hides to an alligator processor in Broward County and kept the money.

Investigators did not know how much money Harper made from his activities.

“This is a case that affected a lot of people and a lot of jurisdictions,” said John Duryea, assistant statewide prosecutor in Lee County. “The applicants were solicited in Lee County; the forged documents were submitted to the FWC up in Tallahassee; the alligators were taken illegally in Polk County; the property was sold in Broward County.

“But it’s an important case for another reason: It’s a very desirable thing for hunters to participate in this process. If someone gets the lion’s share of permits, that denies other people the opportunity to go hunting.”

The most serious charge against Harper is one count of trafficking in stolen property, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“This is one of the first times the state has pursued theft charges in a poaching case,” Mevers said. “Alligators belong to the state until they are legally harvested. If they are not legally harvested, they are stolen.”

All other charges — 45 counts of unlawful harvest of alligators, 17 counts of forgery and four counts of identity theft — are third-degree felonies, each punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of $5,000.

Harper, who was released from the Lee County Jail on $25,000 bail, declined to take a call made to Miller’s Marina Friday afternoon.

Harper is a former professional football player with the Miami Dolphins and was a running back at the University of Florida, playing alongside Steve Spurrier in his collegiate days.
 

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