The two had never met in person, only speaking on the phone to arrange the hunt.
“He just called me one night on the phone and wanted to go hunting, just out of the blue,” Parker said.
It wasn’t that unusual. A licensed hunting guide, Parker had been in the business for years. For a cool $1,500, hunters hire him for the thrill of running dogs after bears and wild boar through the mountainous no-man’s land along the Georgia-North Carolina line.
But Parker was about to get duped. Arnold — who went by the name “Chad Ryan” — wasn’t just another customer from Charlotte as he claimed, but an undercover agent with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Arnold’s phone call had launched Jerry Parker into Operation Something Bruin — the multi-agency investigation that began as an attempt to apprehend bear poachers in Western North Carolina and north Georgia.
Parker was a prime target, suspected of being a rule-bender to ensure clients got the bears they came after.
He had previous run-ins with wildlife officers in the 1980s as one of the hunters caught up in Operation Smoky — a poaching sting that caught North Carolina hunters selling bear parts. He was not convicted of anything because everything he did was on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where he is an enrolled member of the tribe and where state officers had no jurisdiction.
But Parker was convicted this time around. He did one month of hard time in July — which he served out in the Swain County Jail — and is now on house arrest for the rest of his sentence.
Throughout 2008 and 2009 wildlife agencies say they received numerous complaints of illegal hunting activities going on in the woods.
“There was convenience store talk and things like that,” said Major Stephen Adams with the Georgia Department of Resources. “There was a lot of anecdotal talk, and our officers in the area heard there were people being guided, training being used as a guise for hunting.”
The undercover operation ran from 2009 to 2012, with arrests coming down in February 2013.
Arnold’s interaction with Parker and his hunting buddies over the next few days led to six men being charged with hunting violations, although only two were ultimately convicted of anything.
The thrill of the hunt
It was a week into the fall bear season when Arnold showed up at Parker’s place. Arnold said he had been hunting that season already but hadn’t killed anything, and he was itching to get a bear. Parker agreed to take him on a three-day hunt.
Arnold later claimed in testimony that Parker guaranteed he would get a bear, but Parker disputed this.
“Ain’t no guarantee for nothing,” he said. “I couldn’t guarantee nobody I could get a bear.”
Clients stay at his remote hunting cabin in Rabun Gap. It’s an ideal base camp among a patchwork of private lands and national forest. Hunts begin from his front door and foray into the surrounding Nantahala and Chattahoochee national forests, home to a thriving black bear population.
Parker’s favorite hunting ground is the Scaly Mountain area on the North Carolina side. Parker asked Arnold if he had a North Carolina hunting license. He said he did. Parker never asked Arnold if he had a Georgia license, however, a seemingly small technicality that would come back to bite him.
Hunters usually find bears by setting trained dogs loose in the woods to track them and eventually tree them. Dogs wear radio collars so the hunters can keep up with them. When running after the dogs, hunters often jump in their trucks and ride along dirt forest roads while monitoring the dogs that are yelping through the woods in hunt of a bear scent.
It’s a job too big for one hunter, so they usually hunt in groups. Friends of Parker often came along on the hunts he guided.
On the first day of their hunt, Arnold rode around in a truck with Parker’s friend Carl Junaluska.
For much of the morning, the party had little success until Parker found a bear track.
“I struck a track with my dogs and turned on it, turned the dogs loose, called them on the radio, told them which way the dogs was going, and we scattered out and tried to get around where we could get to it and kill it,” he said.
By 2:30 p.m., the hunters were still unable to catch up with the bear. At this point, Junaluska had to return home.
Parker had already called his son — Brock Parker — to help him come catch the dogs, which were still out running in the woods. By the time Brock got there, the dogs had caught up with the bear. When he left his truck to round up the dogs, Arnold followed.
They saw a bear in brush, but neither of them had a clear view of it. Then Arnold fired and shot at the bear.
“They get over there and so happened Arnold killed it,” Jerry Parker said. “Just so happened to see it in the brush and killed it.”
When they approached the bear, however, Arnold thought it appeared small. At that time, for a kill to be legal in North Carolina, the bear had to be at least 50 pounds. Arnold estimated the bear was below the required weight and told Brock he did not want to report it so he could get a bigger bear, according to Jerry Parker.
State law requires hunters to report their kills to the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission. Hunters can kill only one bear per season. Arnold did not want to waste his one kill on a small bear, one that was possibly to small to shoot legally.
Brock Parker called his father on the radio, unsure of what to do. Court documents indicate the bear weighed 42 pounds.
“I told him he was responsible for what he killed, and he had to tag it,” Jerry Parker said. “If he didn’t tag it, it was up to him. I couldn’t make him tag it.”
A different story
Arnold chose not to report the bear kill. When Jerry Parker came to pick the two men up, he asked about the bear, and they said they had left it.
Arnold’s testimony in federal court told a different story. Arnold said Brock Parker was acting as a hunting guide and instructed him to shoot the bear, according to Arnold’s testimony.
“It was not possible to see the entire body of the bear, although its head was visible,” federal court filings describe. “Brock Parker told (Arnold) to shoot the bear between the ears, and he did so, killing the bear.”
Arnold claimed it was Brock’s idea — not Arnold’s — to leave the bear in hopes of getting a bigger one.
“I cannot tell you to break the law, but if you want a bigger bear we will get you one,” Brock told Arnold.
The men called Jerry Parker on the radio to get his input, and he gave a similar answer to his son’s. They decided to leave the bear and then went to wait for Jerry Parker to come over and pick them up.
When Jerry Parker arrived he told Arnold, “I don’t know you from Adam, and if you get in trouble for that, I didn’t tell you what to do. That was all you,” Arnold recounted in federal court.
For this incident, Jerry Parker was initially charged in North Carolina state court with failing to retrieve a big game kill, but the charge was dismissed and moved to federal court, as the kill happened on Forest Service land under federal jurisdiction.
Brock Parker also faced federal charges for the killing of the undersized bear. A jury found them both not guilty of the offense.
“To be honest with you they created crime to have something to charge you with,” Parker said. “I haven’t killed a bear in 20 years. I just like running my dogs.”
Arnold told Jerry Parker he wanted to continue hunting in hopes of getting a bigger bear.
“He said he wanted to continue hunting. He didn’t think he got his money worth,” Parker said. “Next day we found a bear and run it all day but didn’t never get it.”
Jerry Parker told Arnold his dogs were tired and needed rest.
But Parker said he had a friend — Walt Stancil — who had a “problem bear” that was eating his corn. Jerry Parker suggested Arnold check with him about that bear.
The ‘problem bear’
Walt Stancil had first met Arnold a few days earlier. He was in the hunting party during Arnold’s guided hunt with Jerry Parker. Arnold rode with Walt Stancil at one point during the hunt, and Walt Stancil had asked him about the bear he and Brock Parker had bayed, not knowing that Arnold had killed it.
“He said, ‘I missed it,’ and I never thought another thing about it,” Walt Stancil said. “If I knowed he killed a 30-pound bear, I would’ve set him out on the side of the highway.”
After being tipped by Jerry Parker about the “problem bear” in Walt Stancil’s corn, Arnold gave him a ring.
“I don’t know what Parker had told him, but old Arnold calls me and says to me that Parker told him I had a bear problem, and so I didn’t know what to think about that. So I started to think a minute and I said, ‘Well I might have,’” Walt Stancil recalled.
Walt Stancil said a bear had torn into his metal storage building three times. The building was about half a mile from a spot where Walt Stancil put out food for bears, near Blue Ridge Gap.
Hunters have a long-standing practice of putting bait in the woods — from apples to chocolate — to lure bears. Laws differ in Georgia and North Carolina as to what you can use for bait — only natural food in North Carolina — and whether you can hunt over the bait piles — you can in North Carolina but not Georgia. Hunters often claim they are just taking care of the bear population by feeding them, and aren’t hunting from the bait piles, presenting an enforcement challenge for wildlife officers who can’t be certain what’s really going on out in the woods.
Hunters know just how well baiting works. Both Georgia and North Carolina have seen a surge in the bear population, and the population is always more robust in the vicinity of stocked bait stations. These well-fed bears are often the ones who turn into “problem bears” and can wreak havoc on crops and property – just as Walt Stancil had seen.
“I decided I’d set (Arnold) out there and do me a favor, and he done me a favor” Walt Stancil said. “And it’s cost me about $50,000.”
Walt Stancil drove Arnold toward the Blue Ridge Gap bait station and let him out at a cattle gate, according to the document. He told Arnold to walk along the road until he saw a large white oak tree, where he would find big barrel of bait. The tree had a large wooden platform built into it about 8 feet off the ground, and a 55-gallon drum chained to it. Walt Stancil said he had filled the drum with Twix bars and M&M’s.
Arnold staked out the drum and settled in to wait for a bear to show up. Walt Stancil had told him there were two momma bears that usually came by with their cubs. He told Arnold not to shoot these bears but to wait for a larger male bear.
Around 6:45 p.m., a bear approached the drum. Arnold shot it, but it ran off. He called Walt Stancil and claimed he could not find it. Night had fallen, and it was now dark.
While waiting for Walt Stancil to arrive, Arnold returned to the drum and removed a handful of chocolate.
Walt Stancil and his adult son — Cale Stancil — came to help Arnold retrieve the bear.
Cale Stancil easily found the bear, however — a detail the Stancils take as proof that Arnold was luring them out there to entrap them.
“(Arnold) said you couldn’t find it,” Walt Stancil said. “You could’ve throwed a rock and hit that bear where it was laying where he shot it… Cale walked right straight down there to it.”
Cale Stancil and Arnold loaded the bear onto Cale Stancil’s truck. They drove back to the Stancils’ house to get Arnold’s truck before taking the bear to Jerry Parker’s cabin a few miles away to skin it.
Once they arrived at Jerry Parker’s cabin, the Stancils helped unload the bear.
“We drug the bear off. Cale washed his tailgate off, and we got in the truck and come home,” Walt Stancil said. “That’s the last time I saw (Arnold) until we had court.”
Jerry Parker helped Arnold clean and skin the bear so he could take it back home with him. Arnold left the next morning and returned to North Carolina, taking his kill with him.
Lowering the boom
While Arnold is the one who shot the undersized bear and shot the bear at the bait barrel, the Parkers and Stancils were charged with a host of charges related to the kills.
The big kicker, however, was a federal Lacey Act violation, a law dating to the 1900 to stop the extinction of buffalo. The Lacey Act combatted the black market sale of wild animal parts using a two-part litmus test: the act kicks in when an animal shot illegally is transported across state lines.
Federal charges claim the Lacey Act was violated when Arnold shot a bear over bait illegally in Georgia, then took it back into North Carolina.
While Arnold did both those things himself, federal court records alleged that Jerry Parker and the Stancils were culpable since they knew he was doing it.
But Jerry Parker said he did not know Arnold had shot the bear over bait.
“I thought he’d killed it in the cornfield. I didn’t know he’d been up there on that mount,” Jerry Parker said. “It would’ve been legal if he’d killed it in the cornfield and had a license.”
The document asserts Jerry Parker did know where Arnold had killed the bear, as Arnold claimed Jerry Parker told him not to say anything about where he had killed the bear.
“If anybody asks, tell them you killed it over dogs,” he said. “Don’t tell them where you killed it. We ain’t supposed to do that.”
Meanwhile, the Stancils said they had no idea when they helped Arnold load the bear into his truck that he would eventually transport it back to North Carolina.
“He was alone when he killed that bear. He was the one who hauled that bear out of Georgia and into North Carolina,” said Celia Stancil, Walt’s wife and Cale’s mother. “My son did not know where he was going with the bear. He did it by hisself.”
The federal Lacey Act violation against Cale Stancil was dismissed in exchange for Cale pleading to two counts of removing bear from over bait in Rabun County.
“Cale is a 42-year-old ordained Baptist minister and prior to Operation Something Bruin had never even had a speeding ticket in his life,” said Allyn Stockton, the Stancils’ lawyer.
A jury found Brock Parker not guilty of any Lacey Act violations, as he never came around the day Arnold shot the bear at the bait barrel.
Jerry Parker and Walt Stancil were found not guilty of a felony Lacey Act violation, but the jury did find them guilty of a misdemeanor violation.
“The difference is state of mind,” explained Stockton.
He said a felony conviction would have required the jury to find that Parker and Stancil knew Arnold planned to take the bear across state lines. The misdemeanor violation indicates that their knowing would have been possible.
U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger sentenced Jerry Parker to one month in jail and eight months of house arrest, which Jerry Parker opted to begin quickly as his daughter was getting married at the end of July.
His daughter planned all along to use her father’s rustic hunting cabin and property as her wedding venue, but didn’t know her father would be walking her down the isle in an ankle bracelet, a condition of confinement under house arrest.
Reidinger also gave Jerry Parker a $1,500 fine and one year of supervised release.
Walt Stancil has yet to be sentenced for his conviction. He and Stockton are appealing it. Stockton held that Walt Stancil still should not have been included in the charge because there was no commercial element with him.
“Walt was taking the guy hunting,” he said. “He didn’t receive a dime. I think they’ll admit that nobody paid him a dime.”
The prosecution’s argument, however, was that Arnold was under the guide service of Jerry Parker and that hunting at Walt Stancil’s bait barrel was a continuation of that, Stockton said.
This seemed to be a common theme in the operation. While there was often one or two hunters mainly responsible for the crimes committed, others in the hunting party were often netted.
The guy in the truck
This seemed to be the case with Jack Billingsley, a close friend of Jerry Parker’s. He said he was never out in the woods with the hunting party; he stayed in the truck and helped give directions over the radio.
Billingsley was never a bear hunter. He grew up coon hunting with dogs, but when his knees started to get bad, he couldn’t get out into the woods anymore.
He’d lived around Scaly Mountain his whole life though and knew it like the back of his hand, so he enjoyed listening to the hunting party over the radios and helping direct them where to go.
“I’d sit around out there in the truck ‘cause I was selling ‘taters during bear season, and they’d call me and ask me this and ask me that cause they knowed I was raised out there and could tell them where to go and how to get there,” he said. “I got to stay in the truck and that was part of bear hunting. The guy in the truck a lot of times was as important as the guy in the woods cause you can keep a dog from getting run over a lot of times.”
Dogs run loose when tracking a bear, and usually the only way hunters know where they are is through the use of radio collars. For hunters trekking through remote woods, keeping a signal can sometimes be a difficult task. Billingsley was in communication with hunters on the radio while also keeping track of the signal from the dogs’ collars.
He was sitting in the truck on the radio during Arnold’s guided hunt in October 2011. The probable cause in a search warrant for Billingsley’s home indicates that Billingsley also acted as a guide for Arnold and that Billingsley told Arnold he sometimes helped Parker with guiding clients.
“At different times during the hunt, Billingsley was assigned by Parker to guide Sergeant Arnold,” the document reads. “Sgt. Arnold learned through conversation with Billingsley that he assisted Parker with guiding clients.”
But Billingsley said he never went hunting with Arnold.
“The first time I ever laid eyes on the sucker was when I went to the federal court house in Bryson City,” Billingsley said.
He said Arnold probably heard him talking on the radio, however, and didn’t realize he was just sitting in the truck and not out in the woods with the rest of the hunting party.
“I was doing a lot of talking on the radio,” Billingsley said. “I feel sure that’s where he got all his information.”
Still, officers considered him one of the hunting party, especially after capturing him on a hidden camera stocking bait piles.
During the guided hunt, Arnold saw members of the hunting party check different bait stations. He made a mental note of the various bait sites the hunters had scattered through the woods.
Later, he and Special Agent Brian Southard with the U.S. Forest Service placed surveillance cameras at the bait stations during the fall bear season in 2011 and 2012.
The cameras captured Billingsley visiting two different sites five times.
“During his visits to the sites, Billingsley checked the sites in order to determine if additional bait needed to be placed and other times he placed bait at the sites,” according to the search warrant.
Billingsley said he knew about other hunters baiting and told them he would put some corn out one time, which is legal in North Carolina.
But the search warrant asserts Billingsley put out processed food, making it illegal in North Carolina, where only natural food can be put out.
He was charged with four offenses in North Carolina and Georgia for the events related to Arnold’s guided hunt. Those charges were placing processed food as bait, serving as a hunting guide without a license, taking a black bear with the aid and use of bait and hunting bear with dogs during closed season in Georgia.
He also faced three other baiting charges from October and November 2012 in North Carolina.
All of the charges — federal and state — against Billingsley were dismissed.
Meanwhile, Carl Junaluska, who Arnold rode in a truck with at one point was also charged with providing guiding services without having a guiding license, but it was dismissed.
Arnold claimed Junaluska got an under-the-table cut of the fee clients paid Jerry Parker, making Junaluska a de facto guide himself, necessitating a guide permit. But there was no evidence of that.
Arnold claims he said to Junaluska, “He hoped Parker was paying him well for as much gas as he had burned that day.”
“(Junaluska) replied that Jerry was paying him enough and smiled,” the report reads.
Arnold recorded all his conversations with Junaluska, but this conversation never played back on the recording.
“After thoroughly reviewing the recordings, it is clear that the conversation stated in Arnold’s report never happened,” Stockton said.
Stockton went on to testify that he found a different conversation on the recording. Arnold asked Junaluska if he worked for Parker.
“No, I work for tribal construction,” Junaluska replied.
On Dec. 7, 2012, Walt Stancil found something peculiar on private property near a bait site in Scaly Mountain he kept stocked.
Walt had walked out to the bait site with a motion-sensor camera to mount on a nearby tree — a common technique to capture images of what’s coming around the bait station at different times of day.
But Walt Stancil stumbled on another motion-sensor camera.
Suspecting another hunter was using the private property without permission, he picked up the unfamiliar camera.
“I got to looking for a place to hide my camera, and I found that camera,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll just take that camera there.’”
The camera belonged to undercover officers in Operation Something Bruin, and on this day, U.S. Forest Service Officer Brian Southard had just made a trip to the bait station to check on the surveillance camera.
As Southard was driving away, he saw a truck turn onto the dead-end road that leads to the bait site. He stopped out of sight and waited.
About 15 minutes later, Walt Stancil pulled out, and Southard trailed him to Jack Billingsley’s house.
At this point, Southard decided to return to the bait site and see if his camera had gotten pictures of Walt Stancil, but he discovered the camera was no longer there.
Since it had been there before Walt Stancil came along, he guessed Stancil took it and called the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to ask for help in finding it.
Meanwhile Walt Stancil had left Billingsley’s house and headed home, but on the way he wrapped up the camera in plastic and hid it under a rock on Forest Service property off of Highlands Road in Macon County.
“It was just a handy, convenient place,” he said.
He said he didn’t see the point in taking it home because he planned to return it where he found it after looking on the SD card, which he removed and took back to his home so he could put it in his card reader.
“I was curious about what was happening. I wanted to know what was going on there, who was coming and going,” he said.
When he returned home, two deputies met him at the bottom of his driveway and told him the Forest Service wanted to speak with him. They told him the camera belonged to the agency and that the camera had Southard’s business card in it. The card included his name, employer and phone number. On the card, Southard had also written “property of the United States.”
“I never looked in the camera real good,” Walt Stancil said. “I mean, when I opened the camera and got the SD card out of the camera I never saw no (business) card.”
Southard arrived about half an hour later accompanied by two North Carolina game wardens. They stepped out of the car and introduced themselves. They asked a few questions and wanted to know about the camera.
Southard testified that Walt Stancil fully cooperated with his questioning. Walt Stancil told them he had the camera, and he took them to the place he had put it.
“Because I wasn’t stealing the camera,” he said. “If I’d have been stealing that camera they never would’ve saw it again.”
After showing Southard where the camera was, Walt Stancil got into Southard’s car to answer some more questions.
Southard wrote up a statement about the events that had just transpired.
“All Southard did was he stuck that paper in my face and told me to sign it,” Walt Stancil said. “He never read a word of it, period. He never told me to read it. He just stuck it in my face and told me to sign it, and that was it.”
Walt Stancil never asked to read the statement for himself. “I should’ve read that. I shouldn’t ever signed it,” he said.
Southard, however, testified that he read the statement aloud to Walt Stancil.
“I don’t know what all he wrote down,” Walt Stancil said. “There’s stuff he wrote down wasn’t true though.”
While Walt Stancil talked with Southard, other agents searched his truck. He said he cannot remember whether they asked before performing the search.
The agents took a new coat, three cameras, a knife Walt Stancil used to cut cabbage and two of his grandson’s guns.
“They didn’t have a warrant,” he said. “They just took it.”
He estimated he got the seized items back about a year later.
Southard testified, however, that he asked to search Walt Stancil’s truck soon after arriving at his home. Walt Stancil agreed, and that was when the agents found the SD card.
Walt Stancil was never charged by the state for taking the camera — theft of the camera would have been a state charge, not federal one, since it was on private property and not federal land — but a federal prosecutor did levy a charge against him for “removing property of the United States.”
He was tried in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell. Allyn Stockton defended him. Much of the defense’s argument was that Walt Stancil had no way of knowing the camera was the property of the United States.
“Would you agree that if someone were to see that camera on a tree that, without opening it, there would be no way of knowing whether it belonged to the U.S. Forest Service or not?” Stockton asked Southard in court.
Southard said the only way to know this was to observe the business card placed inside the camera.
Chad Arnold serviced the camera three days before Walt Stancil took it. Southard’s business card had been in the camera at that time.
“I try to make them as visible as possible,” Arnold said. “Anytime somebody opens them up, they’ll see the card right off the bat.”
Stockton explained that the surveillance camera could be turned off only by opening the camera.
After looking at the pictures on the SD card, Southard saw photographs of Walt Stancil coming to the site. There were also photographs from inside his truck and the area that looked like Billingsley’s house — it had continued to capture motion-detected images.
“Based on the continued photography, Officer Southard agreed that Walt never opened nor disarmed or turned off the camera until at least after he had left Jack Billingsley’s home,” he said.
Further, Walt Stancil actually returned the camera — which had been left on private property — to Forest Service property when he buried it under a rock.
“If anything he has returned it,” Stockton argued. “He’s not removed it.”
Although U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell acknowledged Stockton’s point as a good argument, his concern was not whether or not Walt Stancil knew to whom the camera belonged but the fact that he took something that was not his.
“He took property that he knew didn’t belong to him — and there is no doubt about that from the evidence presented so far — and it just happened to be property of the United States,” Howell said. “And, under interesting facts of this case, he got caught at it.”
Howell found Walt Stancil guilty of the offense and sentenced him to 15 days of imprisonment. There has been no order for when his sentence will begin, although his conviction is on appeal.
‘A thorn in their side’
Jerry Parker feels targeted by the federal government. He said he has not killed a bear in 15 years, but he believes the government has been chasing him since his involvement in Operation Smoky — another poaching sting that caught bear hunters selling bear parts in the 1980s.
He was never convicted in the operation because everything he did took place on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where he is an enrolled member, outside the court’s jurisdiction.
“The government said I was a thorn in their side for the last 30 years on account of that,” he said.
A Vietnam veteran, Jerry Parker is frustrated in his dealings with the federal government, saying that they have treated him unfairly.
“I fought for my country, and now I’m fighting my country,” he said.
Jerry Parker returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d grown up hunting with dogs — he found the sport provided him a haven after returning from the war.
“It was just medication for me,” he said. “Now I don’t know what to do. They just destroyed your whole life.”