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Killer of Condor Gets Probation, a $20,000 Fine

The Kern County man who shot an endangered bird that had been part of a U.S. breeding program is barred from hunting for five years.

August 16, 2003|Joy L. Woodson | Times Staff Writer

A Kern County man was sentenced to five years' probation and 200 hours of community service and fined $20,000 Friday for killing a California condor during a pig hunt at Tejon Ranch.

Britton Cole Lewis, 29, of Tehachapi also must hand over the gun and scope used in the February killing. And he cannot hunt or be present during a hunt while he is on probation.

In May, Lewis had pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to violating a federal law protecting migratory birds. Kurt Stiefler, Lewis' attorney, said the sentence was one of the best possible outcomes in the case.

"I don't think he belongs in prison," Stiefler said after the sentencing.

In a separate matter, Lewis earlier had pleaded guilty to illegally shooting a whitetail deer in Illinois and transporting its mounted head to California. For that, Lewis was ordered to pay $180 to the state of Illinois, due in part to falsely obtaining a hunting license there, and to serve three years' probation to run concurrently with his other probation time.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Condor case -- An article in Saturday's California section stated incorrectly that the Endangered Species Act stipulates that a defendant must know he or she is shooting at an endangered species in order to be prosecuted under the act. It is actually a 1998 Justice Department policy that requires such proof.

Stiefler said his client was silent during the 10-minute sentencing Friday in federal court in Fresno, adding that it was "fairly obvious how he was feeling."

"He's both relieved and unhappy," he said. "He's unhappy because he got himself into such a mess." Assistant U.S. Atty. E. Robert Wright said that although he would have liked Lewis to serve time in prison, he thought the sentence was acceptable. He noted that Lewis had no prior criminal history and had received an honorable discharge from the Navy after serving two years.

"In all respects it looked like he'd been a fine person, with the one exception of the hunting," Wright said.

The bird that was killed, known as AC-8, was among nine condors captured in 1986 in a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction.

Weighing at least 20 pounds with a 9-foot wingspan, the female condor spent the next 14 years in the federal government's captive breeding program. At 30 years old, the bird had produced a dozen offspring. She was returned to the wild in April 2000 to serve as a mentor for younger, captivity-bred condors released into the wild.

There are now 85 condors in the wild in California, Arizona and Baja California, and 138 in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park and a breeding facility in Idaho.

Mark Hall, a manager at Hopper Mountain Refuge, found the remains of AC-8 after entering Tejon Ranch on Feb. 13. He did not attend the sentencing but felt it was just.

"The five years' probation for the hunter, that's quite a long time," he said. "I think people would have liked to see some jail time, but that doesn't happen very often."

The last conviction in a condor-killing case was in 1999, according to sources at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ronald Owens, 24, turned himself in to federal and state wildlife officials a week after shooting a reintroduced condor with a handgun while on a camping trip in the Grand Canyon.

He was fined $3,200, ordered to hand over his firearm and sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service under the direction of the Grand Canyon National Park's wildlife branch. Owens' conviction marked the first prosecution for violating the Endangered Species Act at the park.

The U.S. attorney's office could not prosecute Lewis under the act because the law says a defendant must know he or she is shooting at an animal that has been declared endangered.

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