Longform

Wildlife Disservice

Page 6 of 13

In the wake of the shooting, Humphrey became something of a folk hero on the anti-wolf circuit. He was featured as the keynote speaker in a Catron County anti-environmental rally on August 8.

In a July 29 letter to Interior Secretary Babbitt, a coalition of environmental groups said Humphrey should be prosecuted, and warned that failure to do so would encourage others to harm wolves.

There were other harbingers that more wolves would soon be shot. But FWS criminal investigators apparently ignored one alarming tip.

In May, a Santa Fe wolf advocate, the aptly named Patricia Wolff, taped a telephone conversation she claims to have had with federal prison inmate Jody Lee "Chance" Cooper. On Wolff's tape, a man she says is Cooper claims he was offered a bounty to kill the wolves.

Cooper has since denied making the statements, but the tape, which can be heard on the Internet, sounds authentic--the man provided details only Cooper likely would have known. (See accompanying transcript.)

"They offered me $35,000 in cash to kill 'em all," the man says.
On the tape, the man says the bounty was offered by a Glenwood, New Mexico, rancher whom he refused to identify. The man says he rejected the offer because it wasn't enough money, and because he wanted the wolves to survive.

But the man suggests that he could kill wolves if he wanted to, saying he'd been "the predator's predator for a long time."

Wolff says she told FWS investigators about her conversation in May but that no one listened to the tape. After three wolves were shot between August 7 and November 7, Wolff contacted FWS agents again on November 9.

"I ranted and raved about why they weren't more aggressively going after the people killing the wolves," she says. "Then an agent came to the house and listened to the tape."

Wolff, who assures the man on the tape that she is not taping their conversation, says she believes Cooper should be held in prison until he reveals who posted the bounty to kill the wolves.

"There is someone in prison who has information about a federal crime to kill endangered species," Wolff says. "They should make him give the name, or keep him in jail."

Wolff will not get her wish; Cooper was released on December 11.
Federal wildlife criminal investigator Steve Middleton declined to comment on Wolff's tape other than to say Cooper is not a suspect in the shootings.

While Cooper couldn't have shot the wolves since he was in prison, he appears to be a likely candidate to have been recruited to hunt wolves.

The six-foot-five, 36-year-old Cooper describes himself as a "hunter cowboy." He has drifted around Arizona for several years, living mostly near Alpine and Safford. According to federal court documents, he has used five aliases, four dates of birth and three social security numbers.

State Game and Fish Department records say he is well-known to law enforcement agencies in the Southwest for hunting and firearms violations and is described as "spooky" by a state Department of Public Safety officer. His criminal record dates back to at least 1985, when he was convicted in Nevada for grand larceny of animals.

In September 1994, as a Game and Fish officer investigating a bear kill questioned Cooper in Springerville, Cooper allegedly asked the officer whether his bulletproof vest could stop a .458-caliber rifle bullet--which was the type of rifle Cooper had, Arizona Game and Fish records state.

In February 1995, Cooper was convicted in New Mexico of aggravated assault and illegal possession of a firearm after "allegedly shooting at someone's feet to make them 'dance,'" law enforcement records state.

Arizona Game and Fish launched an undercover investigation into reports of an illegal mountain lion hunting operation near Safford in March 1996. During the investigation, Cooper, who didn't have a hunting-guide license, led an undercover agent on a lion hunt and accepted payment.

Cooper told the agent that he had illegally killed an elk that winter and affixed his wife's hunting tag to it. Throughout three days of hunting, Cooper carried a firearm even though he was forbidden to possess one because of felony convictions. At one point, Cooper fired several shots at deer, even though it was not deer season, state records of the undercover operation show.

State Game and Fish agents arrested Cooper on March 19, 1996, and charged him with illegal possession of a firearm. He was later indicted on federal firearm charges. Cooper pleaded guilty to the federal charges in June 1996 and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.

As part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Cooper for illegally purchasing six rifles from two Graham County gun shops. One of the rifles, a Mauser, is believed to be the same type used in one of the wolf shootings, criminal investigators say. There is no indication of what became of Cooper's Mauser.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty