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Finding justice in the flesh

Wildlife sleuths use DNA to convict -- or clear -- animals suspected of attacks on humans. Poachers are also being snared by the science.

March 30, 2007|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

Orick, Calif. — AN hour before dusk, when the redwood shadows on the popular Brown Creek hiking trail are long and dark, a mountain lion sprang from a huckleberry bush onto Jim Hamm's back, gripped his face with giant claws and tore at the back of his skull with its fangs.

Looking at the ghastly photographs a few hours later, wildlife forensics specialist Jim Banks shook his head. "Damn near scalped him," Banks muttered.

Miraculously, the 70-year-old Hamm survived, largely because of the courageous intervention of his wife, Nell, a slightly built 65-year-old who struck the mountain lion repeatedly with a heavy branch and stabbed it with a ballpoint pen until it released its hold.

After the attack, hunters summoned to the scene in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park north of Eureka had shot and killed two mountain lions. The urgent task for Banks and his colleague, geneticist Jeff Rodzen, was to determine if one of them was the attacker.

Like the popular TV crime show, Banks and Rodzen form a kind of wildlife CSI team, cracking cases in their state Department of Fish and Game forensics laboratory outside Sacramento.

In 1995, the lab became one of the first state wildlife facilities in the country to use DNA evidence to positively identify wild animals that attack humans and livestock, and to prosecute poachers.

In recent years, Banks, 69, and Rodzen, 31, have used DNA to track illegally harvested bear gallbladders and Sacramento River sturgeon caviar thieves. Having built a comprehensive DNA file on the state's deer population, their next project is to genetically map depleted red abalone populations.

In animal-attack cases, their work exonerates animals nearly as often as it convicts them.

In fact, one of the first things that worried Banks about the Jan. 24 mountain lion attack was that it would spawn a rash of false reports in other parts of California. Sometimes, he said, these are coverups for human foul play. A number of alleged bear and mountain lion attacks that Banks has investigated over the years actually turned out to be homicides.

In one 2003 incident in Trinity County, officials were ready to classify the victim as a mountain lion casualty. The man, found partly devoured on an alpine ledge, had supposedly been a hunter. But when Banks examined the scene, he noticed that the dead man was wearing tennis shoes instead of boots and had no backpack for his supplies and ammunition. The body was surrounded by bear and coyote scat, but none from a mountain lion.

Banks recommended an autopsy -- and the grateful coroner discovered three bullet holes in the man's head. The carnage to the body was done by coyotes and bears after his death.

In Jim Hamm's case, the type of perpetrator was never in question. According to game warden Paul Welden, the first on the scene, the mountain lion or mountain lions were still lurking nearby.

Welden and a park ranger walked into the darkened forest, each carrying a flashlight and a 12-gauge shotgun. Welden was startled when the ranger blurted suddenly: "I've got eyes in the bushes right there."

Soon, both men saw a mountain lion moving in the huckleberries and ferns only 30 feet away.

They contacted local professional hunters Jace Comfort and Blue Millsap, and Millsap released his coonhounds into the woods. The dogs treed two mountain lions, a male and a female, both of whom Millsap killed with his .30-30 rifle.

But until blood, hair and saliva samples taken from the mountain lions and the victim could be matched, supervising game warden Lt. Rick Banko had to assume that a dangerous big cat was still at large. He closed the section of the popular state park where the attack occurred.

Another warden, Paul Cardoza, drove all night in his pickup to reach the forensics lab with the first Millsap kill -- the 68-pound mountain lioness -- and Hamm's blood-soaked clothing and backpack. He was waiting outside the Fish and Game gate in Rancho Cordova when Banks and Rodzen arrived the next morning.

The mountain lioness measured 6 feet 6 from tail tip to head. Wearing surgical gloves, the two investigators hovered over the cat's body, stretched out on a stainless-steel table in the lab's necropsy room. They swabbed samples from the lioness' mouth and chest and from under the leathery folds of skin at the base of her retractable claws.

"Cats are meticulous about cleaning themselves," Banks explained, "but they have trouble reaching this area around their claws. If we find human blood, this is the most likely place."

Banks had hoped there might be some obvious physical sign linking the lioness or the larger male lion -- who arrived later in the day on a Fish and Game plane -- to the attack. The investigators had the bent ballpoint pen that Nell Hamm had used to fend off the attack but could find no mark on either animal.

"This could be a tough one," Banks said.

"A real whodunit," said state wildlife veterinarian Pamela Swift, who ordered both animals tested for rabies.

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