Florida undercover wildlife officers use social media sites to catch poachers
August 2, 2011
By Alexia Campbell, Sun Sentinel
After spearing a snook in the Intracoastal Waterway in June, Brian
Spuler proudly posted photos of his catch on Facebook. Days later, he
was arrested and fined $350.
Florida wildlife officials have gone undercover on Facebook and other
social media sites to catch poachers like Spuler showing off pictures of
their illegal catch. And it often is the lawbreaker's online friends who
get a cash reward for tipping them off.
"People go on Facebook bragging about their exploits. They think
they're protected," said Lt. George Wilson, who oversees the Internet
Crimes Unit of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The urge to brag on the Internet has proven valuable to
investigators, who use the online photos, videos and comments as
evidence. They create fake Facebook accounts to befriend fishermen and
hunters or, most often, access photos through a tipster's account.
The growing number of Internet-related calls led the commission to
create the unit in late 2009. The commission reviews about 10 complaints
a week in South Florida about people who post images of hunting and
fishing out of season or breaking other wildlife laws.
In 2010, the Internet Crimes Unit made 177 arrests and gave 92
In June, wildlife officers arrested Spuler, 18, of Port St. Lucie,
who posted a photo of himself with a snook that appeared to have been
killed with a spear gun. Snook fishing in Florida is highly regulated,
and it's illegal to take the popular game fish out of season or capture
it with a net, spear or trap.
FWC investigators identified people in the photos with a tipster's
help, called them up and tracked down the alleged law breaker. Spuler,
originally from Boca Raton, met with officers and admitted spearing the
snook , according to his arrest report. He was charged with taking snook
out of season and taking snook by an illegal method.
The teen, who gave the fish to his mother for dinner, pleaded no
contest on Friday to taking snook out of season, and a Martin County
judge imposed the fine and gave him six months probation. Prosecutors
dropped the charge of taking snook by an illegal method.
Spuler said investigators violated his privacy, and that he didn't
know it was illegal to fish snook at the time. It's wrong for officers
to go snooping through photos on private Facebook accounts, he said,
although he thinks he allowed public access to his photos.
"Every day I see people posting pictures of marijuana and cocaine,
and I get in trouble for this?" he asked.
Wildlife officials pay about $100 to tipsters for each misdemeanor
conviction, wildlife officials said. Fines imposed on law breakers often
are used to pay future rewards. In 2010, FWC paid $23,550 in rewards to
people who tipped them off to wildlife violations.
"Sometimes [tipsters] are motivated by money or because they don't
like someone," said FWC Investigator Jon Garzaniti, who works for the
Internet Crimes Unit in West Palm Beach. Others are genuinely concerned
about the wildlife, he said.
Local anglers have mixed feelings about the commission's strategy.
Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, said he
hopes wildlife officers will focus on flagrant crimes and take it easy
on people who don't know the law.
"It's easy to get confused," Twyford said. "Florida's laws are
lengthy and complex."
Ken Sorensen, president of the Boynton Beach Fishing Club, said he
applauds the agency's efforts and thinks officers should go after
violators however they can.
It's upsetting to see people disrespect wildlife laws, he said. He
often sees people upload photos to Facebook of undersized fish. The
arrests will set an example and prevent others from doing the same.
"They broke the law … they deserve it," he said. "If I had a friend
breaking the law I would turn him in, too."
Officers with the Internet Crimes Unit use their discretion,
sometimes giving warnings instead of making arrests, Garzaniti said. It
depends on how serious the crime is and whether a person realized it was
illegal. Many times, social media evidence helps them figure out a
The unit also investigates black-market wildlife sales on sites such
as Craigslist. On July 11, officers arrested a Fort Lauderdale man on
charges of illegal possession, sale and caging of a marmoset monkey. The
26-year-old man allegedly tried to sell the native South African monkey
online without a permit for $2,700.
One flagrant poaching case in April 2010 involved a Martin County man
who allegedly boasted on Facebook about shooting an alligator with a
rifle in his backyard. Someone who saw his photos on Facebook turned him
in, according to an FWC arrest report.
The photos on Tom Doyle's profile show his son, rifle in hand,
sitting on an alligator about 9 or 10 feet long. In the Facebook
comments, Doyle, 49, said he shot the gator in the eye. It's illegal to
shoot an alligator in Florida, and only a licensed trapper or agent can
kill it with a bang stick on designated lands during hunting season.
"Wish my first one could have been a legal kill," Doyle commented
beneath one of the photos.
When wildlife officers knocked on his door, Doyle told them he killed
the alligator with a bang stick because it was threatening his goats,
the arrest report said. One of the officers pointed out his Facebook
comment that he shot it. Doyle said he was only bragging.
Doyle later showed officers the alligator meat packed in plastic
bags, buried at the bottom of a freezer.
The meat was seized and Doyle was arrested for illegal possession of
an American alligator. He pleaded no contest and was fined $480.
In a telephone interview, Doyle said he killed the alligator during
the legal hunting season. He still posts photos of his hunting catches
on Facebook, he said, and has no opinion about officers accessing his
"I don't know if they should be doing that or not," he said.
On June 17, a Facebook complaint led to the arrest of a Tampa man who
admitted to killing a deer and an alligator with an AK-47, according to
Kyle Edwards, 21, reportedly told investigators he was trying out his
new assault rifle.
Edwards allegedly admitted posting the photos on Facebook, and
investigators later found the two animal carcasses, the agency said. He
was cited for hunting deer during closed season and illegally taking an
The widespread visibility of social media has made it harder for
violators to hide, and easier for investigators to find them, Garzaniti
"Some people might have 2,000 friends on Facebook and not realize
it," he said. "If we're lucky, their page is set to public."
Fair Use Notice: This document may contain copyrighted material
whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owners. We believe
that this not-for-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes
a fair use of the copyrighted material (as provided for in section
107 of the US Copyright Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted
material for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must
obtain permission from the copyright owner.