The Chameleon: An undercover agent gives animal smugglers a run for their money
Ken McCloud was nervous.
It was late on an August evening, and McCloud had driven to a cinder-block warehouse on an unlit back street in Batesburg, S.C. He took a breath, stepped from the car, and slung over his shoulder a carry-on bag containing $9,000 in $100 bills. He'd slipped an eight-inch knife into the top of his right boot.
McCloud was here on this humid night to meet Johnny Lybrand, a burly, 6-foot-tall suspected animal smuggler. It was just two months past McCloud's 23rd birthday, and he was working his first undercover case for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Accompanying McCloud were two backup agents masquerading as his companions. But the mission's success depended on McCloud and his expertise with reptiles.
Lybrand opened the warehouse door, peered suspiciously down the darkened street, then motioned the trio inside. A single bulb illuminated the one-story building. Skulking about the floor were more than 30 American alligators -- at the time an endangered species. Their tails scraped across the bare concrete, and the animals made ominous bellows and rumbling noises.
The other two agents recoiled at the sight, but McCloud, who had spent most of his life around reptiles, waded right in. He moved a 6-foot-long gator aside with his boot and joined Lybrand at a battered wooden desk, the building's sole piece of furniture.
McCloud was blond, slender, amiable and quick on his feet. A scar from a rattlesnake bite creased the tip of his right index finger. He had introduced himself to Lybrand as Ken Simmons, a college zoology major who wanted to make extra money trading endangered animals.
Nevertheless, Lybrand remained wary. Using Latin species names, he peppered McCloud with questions about reptiles. McCloud answered with ease.
When McCloud agreed to a price, Lybrand became more agitated. He pulled open the bottom desk drawer and withdrew a silver revolver, thrusting the gun in McCloud's face and demanding to know if he was a game ranger.
McCloud leaned forward and spoke firmly. "How do I know that you aren't a game ranger? How do I know that you aren't setting me up? This is your place, not mine."
Both men stared at each other for a moment, then Lybrand put the revolver aside. McCloud's reaction struck the right note; from then on, he and Johnny Lybrand got along just fine.
McCloud peeled off some hundreds and purchased eight juvenile gators. He and Lybrand shook hands amid promises of future deals. They wrapped the gators' heads with burlap bags to keep them calm, and "Ken Simmons" and his two friends drove away with the trunk of their rental car packed with reptiles.