A three-month investigation into the legal killing, sale and interstate transportation of wild game -- much or which winds up on Washington-area dinner tables -- has resulted in charges against 18 suspects in Virginia, Maryland and three other states, Virgninia game officials have said.
Federal and state investigators, using "sting" tactics during the probe, said they found illegal venison stored in refrigerated warehouses and even refrigerated trucks, often for sale to legitimate buyers.
When undercover officers delivered five deer to one suspect illegal buyer, "he had a pile of deer loaded in that truck that was five times as large as what we brought," said one Virginia game official. "There had to be 30 deer in that truck."
Authorities said much of the meat was mixed with beef and sold as hamburger, often through legitimate farmers' markets. Other deer were sold as steaks, they said. "We believe some of it was going to boarding houses to feed roomers," said Maj. Gerald P. Simmons of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Spokesman for the department said the investigation, which included Fairfax and Fauquir counties, uncovered a loose confederation of groups operating in "primary pocket" areas like remote, contiguous sections of West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia.
Federal agents from the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service said juveniles frequently were used as game killers and drivers by operators of the illegial network.
In Virginia, John McLaughlin, chief of the State's enforcement division, said most of the illegally sold game was killed out of season using illegal techniques such as spotlighting.
Surveys have indicated that the number of deer killed illegally in Virginia may reach 25,000 annually, nearly one-third of the state's legal deer harvest.
"It's a thriving market in Virginia . . . this is just the tip of the iceberg," said McLaughlin.
"We're just scratching the surface," added Darcy Davenport of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We've got four federal agents to deal with West Virginia and Virginia on this . . . I wouldn't call that ridiculous. You couldn't print what I'd call it."
Under an agreement with federal agents, Virginia officials declined to release the names of eight suspects already arrested on state charges, but said 10 more persons are being sought on federal and state game law violations. sState convictions can result in up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, while federal convictions can add up to $10,000 in fines.
The investigation began last October and included the filing of charges in Fairfax, Fauquier, King George, Stafford, Augusta and Madison counties in Virginia, McLaughlin said. A number of undercover operations in which suspects were trailed across state lines by state and federal agents included activities in North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
The charges range from hunting out of season, to illegal sale of game, to interstate transportation of deer and various species of waterfowl.
In a typical operation, according to McLaughlin and Davenport, game killers supplied buyers in particular county with from six to 10 deer per week. The buyers, in turn, sold the illegally obtained game to legitimate farm markets, restaurants, or across state lines to individual customers for $3 a pound for prime venison.
In a recent case, state and federal investigators staked out a home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, observing the late night deliveries of one suspect as he slipped deer to customers along a highway route. In another case, said Davenport, federal investigators obtained a warrant for a Carroll County, Md., home where "numerous" quantities of deer meat and marijuana were discovered.
"They love to use juveniles for this tuff because they won't get jail terms," said Davenport. "It's getting to the point with wildlife that people who traffic in drugs are getting into the operation, not to mention the fact that higher beef prices have made deer meat more reasonable to consumers."
McLaughlin said the illegial killing has been compounded by the season's unusually dry weather. Dry spells reduce the number of acorns, the deer's main sustenance, forcing them to forage in more open areas where they are more vulnerable to being killed, he said.
Virginia arrests for spotlighting -- an illegial technique used to stun deer by blinding them with spotlights -- have doubled from about 450 annualy in the mid-1970s to nearly 900 a year, said Virginia's Simmons.