Thin Green Line: Dangers of game wardens
David Grove patrolled all alone, in forests, at night, in the cold and among people who almost always carry guns
By Marc Levy
The Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. — David Grove was a member of the "thin green line" — one of the wildlife officers who work mostly alone, often in forests, at night, in the cold and in close range of people who almost always are carrying guns.
Police say the 31-year-old warden was apprehending an armed poacher last week in the kind of encounter that he and his colleagues often worry about — the kind he had recently written a news article about, after a young suspect escaped but later turned himself in.
"I hope Justin will learn from his encounters with me and realize that breaking game laws and poaching will never do anything good for him in his life," Grove wrote in the November issue of Pennsylvania Game News.
Thursday night, Grove caught a felon poaching deer with a spotlight near Gettysburg, pulled him over and was shot four times, police said. He was the first Pennsylvania game warden killed in the line of duty in 95 years, but the occupation remains hazardous by its very nature.
The North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association says about 70 wildlife officers in the United States have died in the line of duty since 1980, more than a dozen of them from accidental or malicious killings.
"Everybody we deal with has a firearm," said Richard Cramer, the association's vice president and a land management supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Often, game wardens are "encountering folks out to intentionally break the law with firearms."
In 2007, Texas game warden Justin Hurst, 34, was fatally shot with an assault rifle while pursuing a man suspected of illegally hunting from the road. In 2002, Alabama game warden Jimmy Hutto was shot while assisting drug task forces investigating a methamphetamine operation and died weeks later.
This past February, the killer of Florida wildlife officer Margaret "Peggy" Park in 1984 was executed. Park was shot with her own gun by a burglar on probation as she patrolled a wooded area. In March, a 37-year-old federal wildlife officer, Chris Upton, was shot and killed when a Georgia hunter mistook him for a coyote.
For much of the year, a wildlife officer deals with complaints about nuisance animals including bears, raccoons and skunks. In the fall hunting season, the work changes to monitoring for illegal hunting.
"You would run into people who were drunk, out hunting, trying to spotlight a deer, or on drugs," said Bill Bower, a former Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officer who retired in 2002 after 35 years in Bradford County, in the rural north-central part of the state. "So it's always in the back of your mind that this could get dangerous."
Backup could be an hour or more away, and in some cases meant getting out of bed in the middle of the night when a farmer called to say he'd seen someone hunting illegally, Bower recalled.
"I'd jump up and take off, with my wife saying, "Be careful, be careful,'" said Bower, 71.
In Grove's case, he called in the license plate number of the suspect, Christopher L. Johnson, before the shooting, police said. That gave them a critical piece of information.
Authorities say Grove had Johnson, 27, partially handcuffed before the shooting. The suspect told police he fled with the handcuffs locked on his left wrist and shot them off himself, according to a police affidavit. He was arrested the next day at a hunting camp.
In an interview over the weekend with The Associated Press, Grove's older brother reflected on the intertwined fate of his family with the suspect's.
"I don't know him from Adam, but he's a part of our life now and will be forever," said Chad Grove, of Martinsburg, W.Va. "But honestly, I don't think about him very much. I think more about my brother, and you pull out the pictures and look at the good times and the fish we caught and the turkeys we killed and the deer we shot. You hold on to what you have."
In his article for Game News, Grove wrote about heading out for night surveillance duty with Joe, an applicant to become a deputy game warden.
They saw the flash of a spotlight about a mile away and heard the report of a large-caliber rifle. They drove toward the sound, soon surprising two men in a sports car.
"The driver's first words were, 'We didn't shoot,'" Grove wrote. "I again asked for the gun and spotlight, and the driver just looked at me with a blank stare and then put the car into reverse."
Though Justin escaped and later turned himself in, Grove noted that he stumbled onto the same duo later that deer season — hunting illegally.
Most hunters Bower dealt with were gentlemen, he said. Other times, they would swear at or threaten him.
"Things like that back 20 years ago wouldn't mean much," Bower said, "but today if you told a police officer that, you might have a big problem."