Chad Crisp landed in federal prison for hunting violations — hunting deer with artificial light, hunting without a license, and hunting illegally at night.
He was one of 55 individuals caught up in Operation Something Bruin — an undercover investigation looking for bear poachers.
Linda Crisp had been one of the most vocal critics of the operation that pulled in both federal and state agencies and deployed undercover wildlife agents to hunting circles in Western North Carolina and north Georgia. She spoke out and helped organize the hunters who said agents engaged in entrapment, trickery and lies to build their cases. But that day all her energy was focused on being with her family and saying goodbye to her son.
Chad Crisp had held himself together throughout the nine-and-a-half hour drive from their home in Graham County, the only place he had called home, the day before and throughout the 45-minute drive from the motel to the prison that morning.
But now, the reality of it all began to sink in, and his wife could see the tears in his eyes as the two said goodbye.
He was leaving behind his two children — Lauden, 7, and Maddie, 6 — and the family boat dock business he helped his father run on Fontana Lake.
“I told him I’d be the best mother I could for our children,” Rachelle Crisp, his wife, said. “I said, ‘Don’t let them take your pride.’ I told him I loved him.”
“Tell the kids I love them and I’ll talk to them soon,” he replied.
More tears came when Rachelle Crisp left the room and made her way to the prison’s exit.
“Just walking out them doors, I felt like I was going to faint,” she said. “I lost it when I walked out the door.”
It was 10:30 p.m. when they made it back home and picked up the children, who had stayed with friends.
“We did not want them to see their daddy go into the prison and for them to have to say goodbye to him there,” Linda Crisp said.
Her grandson looked up at her and began to cry when she walked in.
“I ask him what was wrong, and he said, ‘I miss Daddy,’” Linda recalled.
David Webb had big marching orders the first day he walked into Don’s Guns and Pawn in Bryson City: find bear hunters, gain their trust and figure out who the poachers are.
Webb, a wildlife officer from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, had been armed with a fake name and story, but he had little else to go by. He didn’t have any names, just anecdotal reports, rumors and hunches that illegal bear hunting was afoot in the mountains.
Webb struck up a conversation with the local gun shop owner. Webb said he wanted to get into bear hunting and asked if the owner knew anyone.
Sure, the owner said. Chad Crisp hunted bear. The store owner pointed Webb in the direction of the Crisps’ boat dock on Fontana Lake.
Webb snaked his way out of town and into the wild, remote reaches of Lake Fontana in search of the Crisps.
Members of the Crisp family were sitting in the yard talking when an unfamiliar truck drove up. Webb got out and introduced himself as Davey Williams, saying the owner of Don’s Guns had suggested the Crisps might let him bear hunt with them.
“They was undercover good. He had an old Ford truck — nothing at all nice — and Davey is real country anyway,” said Chad Crisp, who still refers to Williams by his undercover nickname.
Chad’s father, David, was never much of a bear hunter. He just went with his son and other hunters as the man in the boat because, “Somebody has to be on the lake,” Chad Crisp said.
The national forest that envelops Lake Fontana is prime bear hunting territory. A guy with a boat to motor you around and put you out on shore is a helpful friend for a bear hunter to have.
But it would ultimately be the Crisps’ downfall, placing them in the middle of the bear hunting scene targeted by investigators.
Chad Crisp was originally a deer hunter, but once he learned more about raising his own bloodline of dogs to hunt bear, he discovered a love for bear hunting.
They could always use more people in the woods on a hunt, so the Crisps agreed to take Webb with them. It was July, still a few months away from the opening of bear season in October, so the Crisps didn’t think much of the interaction.
“We thought it was a one-time thing,” David Crisp said.
It was 2009, and the undercover Operation Something Bruin had just been launched. Six years later, the Crisps find themselves embroiled in the fallout of this “one-time thing.”
A fishing expedition?
It had been years since the last undercover poaching investigation in the region — known as Operation Smokey. Critics have suggested wildlife officers were simply ready for another rodeo.
“Why did you decide to focus on Western North Carolina? Was it because you had a successful poaching ring investigation here 20 years ago?” U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, posed at a federal oversight hearing on Something Bruin this summer.
“I don’t have the specific evidence. I just know there were reports of that,” Tony Tooke of the U.S. Forest Service replied.
“Sounds like hearsay,” countered U.S. Congressman Jeff Duncan from South Carolina.
But officers from the four state and federal wildlife agencies in the operation insisted that rogue bear hunters had to be checked, and the only way to do it was with undercover agents.
“Hunters had begun to use advanced radios, GPS devices and electronic tracking systems, making enforcement and documentation of violations more difficult,” Major Stephen Adams with the Department of Natural Resources explained at the oversight hearing.
Honest hunters that witness illegal hunting rarely report it, “further hampering law enforcement efforts,” Adams said.
‘I honestly became friends with this guy’
Webb was soon joined by another undercover agent, and the two went on multiple hunting trips with the Crisps over the next three years.
From those trips, both men were charged with various hunting violations. Chad Crisp pled guilty to seven charges, and David Crisp was convicted of one.
The charges from one of those hunting trips alone — one in which Chad Crisp never even fired his gun — netted Chad 15 of the 20 months he was sentenced in federal prison.
“Even though he didn’t shoot anything, just one hunt got him 15 months in prison. He should have been on probation, paid about $2,000 in fines and gone to the house,” said Rusty McLean, a lawyer who represented some of the hunters charged in the operation, but not Chad.
The Crisps contend they are innocent, and say that the undercover agents created crimes and entrapped them. They have since been some of the most vocal critics of the operation.
“They said they were infiltrating known poaching rings,” Linda Crisp said. “They didn’t even know Chad or David.”
Webb began hunting with the Crisps that fall and continued to hunt with them over the next few years, becoming a regular in their hunting party.
Webb came up empty-handed his first year hunting with the Crisps, but finally caught Chad breaking the law in the fall of 2010. Chad operated a vessel on the water at night without navigational lights — a misdemeanor he later pled guilty to when the charges came down.
To solidify his hunting ties with Chad, Webb went in with him to buy two hunting dogs. Webb paid for the feed, and Chad Crisp trained them.
“I honestly became friends with this guy,” Chad Crisp said.
In 2011, another undercover agent — Chad Arnold with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission — appeared on the scene. Looking back, Chad Crisp speculates the agencies were considering shutting the operation down at that point if the agents couldn’t find any hunters breaking the law. Throughout that year, Webb was always eager to go on hunts and bring back a bear.
“That whole year all he was saying was, ‘I gotta kill something. I gotta get some meat,’” Chad Crisp recalled.
Arnold went by the undercover name Chad Ryan. Webb introduced him to the Crisps and other hunters as one of his friends.
As undercover agents, Webb and Arnold had to walk a fine line as they became a bigger part of the Crisps’ lives while still being mindful of their ultimate role as law enforcement officers.
The family hosted a Thursday-night Bible study, which the agents would occasionally attend. Arnold once requested that the group pray for Webb.
“Arnold called me and said that I needed to pray for Webb — that he thought he’d really got out of God’s will,” Chad Crisp said.
Concerned for his friend and noticing that Webb appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight, Chad Crisp approached him and asked if there was anything he wanted to talk about.
“You can tell me. It’s OK,” Chad Crisp told him.
Webb said it was problems between him and his wife, although Chad Crisp now suspects it was anxiety over his split role as friend and undercover agent.
Rachelle Crisp said her husband was devastated when he found out the truth — that “Davey” was an undercover agent.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Chad Crisp said. “We’d been friends two years. I really thought I had a friend.”
He didn’t have the same sentiments about Arnold, however. He had a strange feeling about him from the beginning but tried to like him since he was introduced as a friend of Webb’s.
“I even called Davey and told him, ‘There’s something about this guy,’” Chad recalled. “I didn’t feel comfortable… I just got a bad vibe about him. I trusted Davey enough.”
The Crisps found the agents’ behavior more extreme after Arnold came.
“They called nonstop at the house,” Rachelle Crisp said. “Just constant. ‘Is Chad there? Tell Chad let’s go hunting.’”
The couple said they began to be suspicious of the agents’ behavior when the agents showed up at Ingles while the Crisps were grocery shopping with their two children. The agents followed the family back to their home, where Chad Crisp got his hunting gear ready and then went out on a hunt with them.
“It seems like every time we’d start to something with the kids or sit down and do something, there they’d call, ‘Come on, Chad. You promised we’d go hunting,’” Rachelle Crisp said.
The Crisps now interpret this behavior as evidence of the agents’ desperation to find charges to pin down on the hunters.
The agents had suspicions that Chad Crisp was illegally baiting bears with chocolate, saying that Chad Crisp had told one of them he had a friend who purchased 500 pounds of candy to put out for bears as bait in June 2011.
There was also a later conversation that month in which Chad Crisp told the agent he was using 500 pounds of M&M’s as bear bait, according to the factual basis in Chad Crisp’s plea agreement.
In North Carolina, it is illegal to put out processed food to attract bears — you can only use natural foods like apples and corn as bait, and only on private property.
The agents showed up at the Crisps’ home one day out the blue with four barrels of chocolate and began putting them out as bear bait — which was illegal. Chad Crisp was not home, but Rachelle called him and told him he needed to come to the house to see what was going on.
The agents bought the chocolate in Tennessee and transported it back to Graham County. They said it was to refill Chad Crisp’s already-existing 55-gallon drum placed in the Nantahala National Forest.
“The problem was…they had to justify their sting operation, so they started creating stuff,” David Crisp said. “They started going and getting bait down in Cleveland, Tennessee, and they brought it in here and charged us with baiting.”
After filling a five-gallon bucket with M&M’s, one of the agents took the bucket down to the boat dock and loaded it onto a pontoon boat. David Crisp was already on the boat, and he took the agent and Chad Crisp down Fontana Lake and into the hidden Lovin Entry area.
David Crisp waited in the boat as his son and the agent took the bucket of candy and walked about 50 yards from the shore to a black, plastic barrel. The barrel was bolted to a tree that had claw marks on it. Chad Crisp and the agents poured the contents of the bucket into the barrel and then returned to the boat, according to the factual basis of his plea.
Although Chad contends that the agents’ account of what happened is not completely accurate, Chad did say he had put out chocolate to feed bears during the leadup to hunting season in 2011.
At one time, that was common in the hunting community — and perfectly legal to attract bears with candy or dog food and then hunt them with dogs. But the law had changed in 2006. Only natural food like apples and corn could be put out to feed and bait bears.
Chad Crisp said he didn’t know the law changed. When he learned of the law, he said he cleared out the illegal bait.
The factual basis also indicates that Chad Crisp stopped baiting, but it alleges he stopped because he heard of some hunters in Franklin who had lost their hunting licenses for using illegal baiting tactics.
Although Webb and Arnold bought the M&M’s and put them out, because David and Chad helped they were both charged with putting out illegal bait. The charges claim David and Chad aided and abetted one another in the baiting offense.
The charge against Chad Crisp was dismissed as part of his plea deal, but David Crisp was convicted of this charge.
At the state level, Chad Crisp had three charges for separate incidents of baiting in 2011, but these charges were dismissed. David Crisp was never charged by the state for baiting.
Chad Crisp said he grew increasingly suspicious of the agents’ behavior and felt like they were asking a lot of questions since Arnold had started hunting with their party.
“I just had a bad feeling, and I asked them, ‘Are y’all law? Are y’all game wardens?’” Chad recalled.
They brushed off the question, shocked that he would ask.
“You ain’t got a problem proving it then?” Chad Crisp continued.
Chad challenged them to shoot a bear, even though hunting season didn’t officially open for another month. Chad figured officers wouldn’t shoot a bear out of season.
Chad knew where a bear was, so they set out and eventually treed one. He said Webb fired the first shot, hitting its hindquarters. The bear started to come down the tree, so Webb fired again, this time hitting it behind the shoulder.
Chad Crisp grabbed the gun at this point, sensing that Webb was nervous. He fired as the bear jumped but missed.
“Blood was coming out of its nose. It was dying,” Chad Crisp said. “It caught a second wind and fought the dogs down into the lake.”
He followed the dogs as they fought the bear because he knew if the bear got ahold of them it could kill them. Some of the dogs were young and still being trained at only six months old.
The men had run out of bullets, but Webb suddenly remembered he had a pistol in his backpack.
“I said, ‘Davey, you gotta run in there. You gotta stick the gun to the bear and put it out of its misery,” Chad Crisp recalled.
Chad Crisp was holding back the dogs to keep them out of the line of fire as Webb prepared to shoot. He missed.
“He tried one more time, and he said, ‘Here, you do it,’ and handed me his gun,” Chad Crisp said. “I ran in there, and I stuck it in the bear’s mouth and killed it.”
He asserts that he had to kill the bear. It was not a matter of hunting for sport but a matter of safety, as wounded bears are dangerous.
“If it’s got five minutes left of air, them five minutes is real mean on whatever it can get ahold of,” Chad Crisp said.
The hunting story retold by the agents in court documents differs completely from the Crisps, however.
They reported that the hunting trip was planned, according to the factual basis in court filings. Chad Crisp had been using a tracking device to see if a bear had hit the bait site. The device beeped around 9:15 p.m., and the dogs treed the bear a few minutes later. One agent fired into the tree, shooting below the bear and deliberately missing.
Chad Crisp then took the rifle and shot the bear in the back. He shot it one more time, after which it fell out the tree, but the bear continued to fight despite its wounds, until Webb remembered the pistol in his backpack and Chad used it to finish the bear off.
Chad Crisp asked an agent if he had a place to take the bear because he was concerned his place had too much visibility.
“The (agent) said he did, but he was worried about getting pulled over,” the document reads. “(Chad) said to tell them it was a road kill bear.”
Chad Crisp later said he did not tag the bear because it had been shot out of season.
As part of his plea deal, Chad Crisp pled guilty to killing this bear, although he contends that he merely finished it off when Webb was the one who originally shot it.
U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger sentenced him to three years of probation, a $1,000 fine and $2,232 in restitution for this offense.
Chad Crisp also faced state charges for killing a black bear unlawfully. One of those was for taking a cub weighing less than 50 pounds. The other was for exceeding the season bag limit, which is one bear per hunter per season. Both charges came from a November 2011 hunt.
But these charges, and the rest of his 15 state charges, were dismissed — some got moved to federal court while others were dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Over time, Chad introduced Webb and Arnold to the other men he hunted with. The agents befriended them as well, and they too ended up with charges before it was all over.
On one hunt with Mitchell Jenkins and Tommy Queen, undercover agents witnessed Queen killing a momma bear that had two cubs in tow — which is illegal. Queen hauled the bear back to the Crisps’ boat dock, where Chad Crisp helped him unload and put it in Queen’s truck. Chad Crisp and Jenkins were charged as accessories.
David Crisp also ended up with charges as an accessory for shuttling hunters and the bears they’d shot illegally about the lake — even though he didn’t hunt himself.
“I know my husband is the safest bear hunter in the woods,” Linda Crisp said. “The bears are real safe around him. He’s never killed one.”
That wasn’t the only problem David Crisp faced for shuttling others about the lake. David Crisp ended up with charges related to the illegal harvest of ginseng after taking Arnold and Chad across the lake for a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they proceeded to dig ginseng.
David Crisp had taken his son and Arnold, the undercover agent, across the lake for an overnight camping trip in the park. While there, they illegally dug up 12 ginseng plants, according to court filings. The next day, they got a ride back across the lake from someone else.
Both David and Chad Crisp were charged for this event. Chad Crisp’s charge was later dismissed as part of his plea bargain. David Crisp went to trial for the charge and was found not guilty.
“I never got out of the boat, so they had to drop that,” David Crisp said.
The close-out phase of the operation began at the end of 2012. Armed with search and arrest warrants against all the hunters they’d racked up charges against, a multi-agency team of officers from multiple states fanned out across the mountains to make all the arrests in February 2013.
Chad Crisp didn’t know how to explain what it was like when agents stormed his house. He was not completely caught off-guard. He had been on the phone with a friend who had driven past the home of another hunter charged in the operation and seen officers there.
Rachelle Crisp, however, had no idea what was coming. Officers arrived at her home around 5 p.m. with a search warrant. She estimated 26 to 28 officers were at their home while a helicopter hovered over the house.
She was home with her children, who were 3 and 4 years old at the time, when officers handcuffed her and took her outside after she entered the room to see what was going on.
“It was freezing cold outside, and they put me outside and shoved me up against the wall by force, not gently,” she said.
Although he did not know the specific number of officers who participated in the arrests, Colonel Jon Evans with the Wildlife Resource Commission said many reports he has heard have been inflated. He noted, however, that those whose homes were being searched were probably not able to absorb what was going on accurately.
“If someone was having a search warrant served on their home, I wouldn’t expect them to sit there and document every officer,” he said.
Critics of the arrest and search process have likened the officers’ conduct to that of a SWAT team.
“We don’t have shield. We don’t have SWAT teams. We are officers,” Evans countered. “We serve a search warrant in the manner we believe is the safest.”
David Crisp was also at the house. He was in the living room with his grandchildren when officers came in, handcuffed him and led him outside.
“Them kids are scared to death,” he said to the officers. “Can’t you let their momma go back in?”
After officers searched her, Rachelle Crisp was allowed to go back inside with her children. Officers agreed to release her from the handcuffs as long as she would stay seated on the couch.
“You’re not gonna take me in there with these handcuffs on,” she told the officers. “I have done nothing wrong. I am not gonna go in there with these handcuffs on in front of my babies and terrify them more.”
The family guessed officers kept David outside for an additional 45 minutes after letting Rachelle Crisp return inside to be with her children.
The officers left around midnight. It was a school night for the children.
“Just trying to get them to sleep knowing their daddy was going to jail … My son asked me. ‘Mommy, are they gonna come take you away too?” Rachelle Crisp recalled.
Both children are wary of law enforcement officers now, Chad Crisp said. They are always alert him when one is near them. Maddie, the youngest, does not remember much of these events, but the family has seen an impact on the older one, Lauden.
“The cops pushed in our home and took my mom and dad away,” Lauden wrote in a personal account of his experience. “Me and sissy were scared. The cops had big guns pointed at us. The cops wouldn’t let us see our mommy. We hid under blankets.”
Lauden broke down one November morning on the way to school. David and Chad Crisp had a court date that day, and he was afraid he would never see them again. His mother was walking him into school but ended up taking him home because he was so distressed. She said he did not calm down until he saw his father return home that evening.
Going to the mat
That’s what ultimately led Linda Crisp to spring to action and start speaking out about the operation.
“We had been quiet on this for 10 months. We hadn’t said anything, just kind of waiting to see what was going to happen,” Linda Crisp said. “And then when that happened that morning, I told Rachelle I said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m getting ready to go for their throats.’”
It wasn’t hard for Linda to rally the hunting community to speak out about what had happened. They were eager to share their own version of what happened, and it was a different version than what wildlife officers had portrayed in newspaper headlines.
Linda Crisp organized a huge public forum in January 2014, renting out the Swain County High School auditorium and filling it with more than 200 people who listened as hunters spoke about how they felt they had been treated unfairly.
By year’s end, the N.C. General Assembly held a field hearing where hunters, family members and lawyers spoke about the event.
Heaping on the prison time
The bulk of Chad Crisp’s 20-month sentence comes from a single hunt. On Dec. 3, 2010, Chad Crisp and two agents went on a night hunt, which is illegal unless hunting for raccoons, opossum, feral swine or coyotes.
Agents’ reports indicate they were hunting for bear.
The agents arrived at the Crisp home at 9 p.m. The men loaded guns and dogs into a truck and drove into the Nantahala National Forest, where they released the dogs.
Although they were primarily looking for bears, Chad Crisp instructed one agent to load the shotgun and shoot a deer if he saw one.
But they didn’t. They did not kill anything that night and came home empty-handed after several hours.
Chad Crisp pled guilty to all three charges that came as a result of this hunt. Those charges were hunting bear at night during closed season, hunting deer at night and hunting deer with the aid and use of light.
But Chad Crisp questioned the validity of the spotlighting charge, which was merely a result of driving with his truck headlines on.
“When we swooped our headlights and turned around, they got us for spotlighting,” he said.
Chad Crisp received another five months for hunting without a license — bringing his total sentence time to 20 months.
He emphasized that his pleading guilty to these offenses does not mean he actually committed them. He said the only valid charge against him was that of hunting without a license.
He told his mother he did not want to plead to any of the charges, but he felt that was his best option.
“Here I am in court that day and I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to do,’” he said. “I just prayed, ‘Your will be done.’ It felt like I should take the plea.”
Charges of baiting a bear and other miscellany had been dropped in exchange.
“A lot of people will plead guilty to things they never did in order to prevent having to take the risk of punishment that would be far greater…” said Rusty McLean, David Crisp’s lawyer. “There are innocent people pleading guilty to things they didn’t do, and there are guilty people who get a pretty sweet deal.”
Shocked by the sentence
None of the Crisps were prepared for the sentence Chad Crisp received, however. Chad felt like he would have fared better before a jury, but instead his case would be up to a single judge who had been dishing out jail time to some of the other hunters.
“I told him, ‘Judge, I’ve got two kids and wife that depend on me and a business, and I can’t be away from it,’” he said.
Chad Crisp offered to pay a fine of $10,000, give up his hunting license for five years, stay off the parks for five years and do six months in prison.
“Don’t cut yourself short yet,” Judge Dennis Howell told him, Chad recalled.
And then came the 20-month sentence.
“I was expecting time, but man when he come back out there nobody was expecting what he gave,” Chad Crisp said. “It blowed all of our minds. I couldn’t believe it.”
By contrast, a different federal judge had handed down Crisp’s sentence for killing a bear out of season — the hunt where he finished off the wounded bear initially shot by Webb — and only gave him probation and hefty fines.
Yet for these offenses, in which Chad hadn’t actually shot anything, he got 20 months.
The family has not accepted the sentence without a fight. Although his imprisonment began on July 23, the sentencing is currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
The plea agreement contained a provision that Chad Crisp would waive his right to appeal unless the appeal was based on how the case was presented, which is the grounds he and his lawyer, Eric Stiles, are appealing the sentence on.
Linda Crisp sees the decision to send him so far from home for so long as a form of retaliation for an investigation that went sour for the wildlife agencies.
“Had we not said anything, they might not have been so hard on him,” she said.
She fears that being away from work at the boat dock for so long will cause his wife and children to lose the new house they had just made a down payment on in March. The family needed more space, and the children were excited to have their own rooms.
“My grandson told me, ‘Nana, now I have my own bedroom,’” she said.
David Crisp, however, told his daughter-in-law he would still send her Chad’s paycheck to help support the family.
But Linda also worries about how her husband will man the boat dock on his own, especially between November and January when the waterline is lower, and he is responsible for moving about 80 houseboats.
“It’s bitter cold on that lake, and my husband has had two heart attacks,” she said. “That’s why my son does all the pulling and lifting.”
Linda Crisp said she hopes that as a result of this struggle, there will be a new law that gives people the right to a jury trial and not let decisions hinge on the whims of a single magistrate judge.
“We have stood up and told the truth from day one,” she said. “And we will continue to tell it because we intended for our voices to be heard on this.”
Nearly two-and-a-half years after the arrests, the dust from Operation Something Bruin still hasn’t settled.
Hunters claim the operation was a sham designed to entrap them. Wildlife agents claim there were serious hunting crimes that had to be stopped.
The Smoky Mountain News launched an investigation of its own to explore the many unanswered questions surrounding Operation Something Bruin.
Were those charged indeed reckless cowboy hunters or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time? Were bears being exploited by renegade hunting tactics? Did overzealous wildlife officers rack up unfounded charges and then stack them in court to justify their operation? Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore:
• Personal stories of hunters caught up in the dragnet, including what they admit to and what they don’t.
• The rich, cultural heritage of hunting in Western North Carolina and north Georgia.
• The legal proceedings of the cases, including those that unraveled and those that stuck.
• The tactics of the wildlife agents and what it takes to go undercover.