Federal agents went undercover, conducting nighttime surveillance, setting up remote cameras and digging through trash cans, searching for possible criminal activity among Southern California's roller pigeon rings.
Roller pigeons, you ask?
Roller pigeons are bred for a genetic quirk that strikes in mid-flight, causing a brief seizure that sends the birds spiraling uncontrollably toward the ground. Thousands of hobbyists compete to see who can best make their birds roll in unison.
But for a hawk or falcon, a plummeting roller pigeon is fast food. Fed up by raptors spoiling their sport, some of the leading competitors in the roller pigeon field began illegally killing the predators, according to a federal indictment released Thursday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested seven men from Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, including the president of the sport's national umbrella group, on charges of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a misdemeanor.
The agents blame the clubs that the men belong to for killing 1,000 to 2,000 hawks and falcons in Southern California every year.
"When you take out a predatory bird, you're taking out the upper end of the food chain," said Special Agent Lisa Nichols of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "It blows the balance of everything."
Birmingham Roller Pigeons, as they are officially called, are originally from England but now are raised in backyard coops around the world. In the U.S., "flyers" enter teams of 11 to 20 birds in competition. During 20-minute bouts, the birds are scored for the number, quality and depth of rolls that a "kit" or group of at least five birds performs in unison, according to the National Birmingham Roller Pigeon Club, whose president, Juan Navarro, was among the seven men indicted.
Navarro allegedly told an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent that he likes to "pummel" the hawks that he catches with a stick.
"You'll see, it gets the frustration out," Navarro said, according to a Fish and Wildlife agent's affidavit.
Navarro could not be reached for comment. On the Inner City Roller Club website, Navarro wrote that attacks by falcons and hawks have reached "epidemic proportions in the Los Angeles metropolitan area."
"The emotional stress of seeing birds taken daily is just too much for some fanciers," he said.
During the yearlong investigation -- called Operation High Roller -- Agent Ed Newcomer purchased a trap from one defendant for $130 -- and was instructed on how to avoid detection by authorities, according to court records.
In San Bernardino, he attended an event called Pageant of the Pigeons, where two hawk traps were among items being sold to raise money for the national club.
At points, Newcomer's affidavit on the case reads like a noir novel. Skulking around the home of defendant Keith London in South Los Angeles, Newcomer and agent Ho Truong saw a trap on the roof and "what appeared to be a large bird flapping its wings."
Watching from Newcomer's Chevy Tahoe parked across the street, the agents watched as London, president of the Inner City Roller Club, climbed the roof, shot the bird with a pellet gun and threw it into his backyard, according to the affidavit.
"A short time later I observed London emerge from his residence carrying an object wrapped in a white paper bag." London put it in his trash can. The agents "maintained surveillance on the garbage can" until London left his home 45 minutes later. They opened the paper bag.
"Inside the white package, I recovered what I recognized as a dead Cooper's hawk. The carcass appeared to have a puncture wound or bullet wound to his chest. I noticed that the Cooper's hawk carcass was fresh, warm and limp."
They bagged it and sent it to a federal lab in Oregon for an autopsy and "ballistics analysis."
Two weeks later, the results came in: Killed by a .22-caliber pellet, the affidavit said.
Until recently, London owned the Pigeon Connection, where he sold pigeons and feed down the street from his house. James Ballard, a neighbor, said everyone knew London and his somersaulting pigeons.
"These hawks, they prey on his birds," Ballard said. "That's how he makes his business. He shouldn't be in no trouble."
Ron Simpson, a top breeder of show roller pigeons in Ohio, said fanciers would be upset by the charges.
They know the killings are technically illegal, but they view the actions as infractions like speeding and not real crimes.
"They'll say they got every right to kill the hawks," Simpson said.
Several ornithologists said the illegal killing of raptors dates back decades in Southern California. But they were stunned by the extent of the carnage authorities alleged.
Most of the hawks in Southern California prey on rats, mice and small birds, not the larger pigeons, they said. "If they really killed 2,000, they killed a whole lot of birds that don't eat pigeons," said Lloyd Kiff, former curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Nichols says most of the birds that were caught were Cooper's hawks, but also include red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons.
"These birds are not endangered, but they're protected for a reason," she said. "You don't see a red-tailed hawk or a Cooper's hawk every time you walk out the front door."
London and the six other defendants could face fines of up to $10,000 and six months in prison if convicted.
Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.