Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Thwarting Illegal Trafficking In Fish And Wildlife

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently honored Wayne as its 2016 Investigator of the Year.

Wayne is assigned to the agency’s Northeast Region encompassing 12 counties including Putnam and St. Johns. The region runs from St. Johns to Indian River on the east coast and west over to Sumter.

“I love what I do in protecting the wildlife. It’s the only type of law enforcement that I would do because that’s how passionate about it that I am,” Wayne said. The biggest reward, he said, is “just the satisfaction that I’m helping the environment and that I’m helping people be safe.”

The annual award honors a FWC investigator whose efforts demonstrate outstanding performance and achievement among investigators on cases including captive wildlife, overt and covert operations, surveillance and wildlife trafficking.

Wayne worked his way up the ranks after joining the agency in 1991 as a wildlife officer assigned to water patrol on the north end of Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. He became a captain but in 2012 took a voluntary demotion to become the agency’s first full-time ports investigator.

Wayne said his uncle inspired his love of the outdoors and shared passion for fishing. As a teenager, Wayne was with his uncle in a boat fishing “out in the middle of nowhere” off the state’s southwest coast when he caught sight of his future career. His uncle said “uh, oh, here comes the man.” He then said “the wildlife officer” when Wayne asked what he meant.

“And he came and checked us out … Then the officer left and my uncle told me ‘that would be a good job for you as much as you like the outdoors.’ He was thinking of a good government job, and that kind of sparked my interest and I looked into it,” said Wayne, adding it quickly became clear the career was right for him.

Wayne said his two biggest 2015 cases are still pending.

One thing that never changes, he said, is the unknown of what he might encounter day-to-day. “It might be a snake. It might be monkeys. It might be lobsters. It could be anything,” he said.

FWC officials credit Wayne with making numerous major cases involving the illegal import/export of fish and wildlife. He has helped guide FWC’s ports inspection program’s success and expansion. That success has spurred the agency to add five port investigator positions statewide, they said.

Maj. Gregg Eason, FWC investigations section leader, said Wayne “has made some incredible cases and has been instrumental in advancing the FWC’s port inspection program.

”This important program is a vital tool to curbing illegal wildlife trafficking – a $20 billion per year industry that undermines legal businesses and jeopardizes public safety. His work has strengthened our ability to successfully combat this activity,” Eason said.

Eason said one of Wayne’s most important cases dealing with the illegal import/export of fish and wildlife was a two-year multi-agency effort to investigate a case that cause more than $1 million in damages.

“Florida’s ports are the front lines of an ongoing war between law enforcement and those who would illegally import or export illegal fish and wildlife,” Eason said. Most Floridians are unaware that the illegal importation and exportation of wildlife through the state’s ports is a significant and growing issue, he said.

Eason — in nominating Wayne for the award — cited several of his cases including these:

Operation Dirty Dealing — Wayne participated in a joint state and federal investigation of seafood dealers in St. Johns, Volusia, Indian River and Brevard counties that resulted in several citations and warnings being issued for state and federal fisheries violations.

Operation Atlantis — Wayne partnered in an investigation of two unlicensed marine life/tropical fish dealers in Putnam County. The probe also targeted suspected illegal sale of reptiles such as lizards and snakes. The two-to three-day operation concluded with several citations and warnings being issued to violators, Wayne said.

Operation Tanked —Wayne intercepted several shipments of marine life from a Brevard County unlicensed internet dealer — triggering a multi-agency investigation resulting in federal charges under the Lacey Act — a United States conservation law prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.

Reticulated python — Wayne intercepted the shipment of a reticulated python, which is classified as a conditional/invasive species in Florida as the reptile was en route from a South Florida reptile dealer to a Cocoa resident. The dealer had an extensive history of selling conditional species to unlicensed individuals.

Wayne said that since becoming an investigator, he’s learned that be it fish or wildlife or anything else, if people can make money off it, they will. In the old days, he said, illegal fish and wildlife dealers would set up a storefront operation, but now all that’s needed is a computer with internet access and a way to ship the fish or wildlife.

He said people have taken wildlife ranging from baby alligators to turtles, venomous snakes and marine tropical fish out of Florida to sell elsewhere in the nation or overseas.

“It’s hard to say whether there’s an increase in it but I would say we’re getting better at detecting it. Through our port investigations and our internet crime investigations we’re able to see a lot more of it,” Wayne said. Investigators uncover illegal fish and wildlife trafficking via various methods including the internet or by intercepting shipments, he said.

A graduate of the Florida Leadership Academy, Wayne has served as field training officer and instructor for the agency in several areas including port investigations, man-tracking, airboat operation and boating under the influence investigations. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Florida State University.

Wayne also is active in the community, and volunteers as a board member for the National Association of Chiefs of Police at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum, which provides family support programs to officers permanently disabled in the line of duty.

Earlier this year, Wayne received the Investigator of the Year Award from the State Law Enforcement Chiefs’ Association, which recognizes “the best and brightest in Florida’s law enforcement community.”