Canvassing for clues

LIHUE — Investigating the death of an endangered species — in this case, a Hawaiian monk seal pup — is exactly what you might expect in any homicide investigation.

Agents canvassing the crime scene for clues. An autopsy — or, in the case of an animal, a necropsy. Following leads. Conducting interviews. And, with any luck, search warrants and arrests.

Or as Bill Pickering, special agent in charge of NOAA’s Pacific Islands region, called it — gumshoeing.

“All the different types of things you would see on CSI,” he said.

There’s really nothing fancy or special, Pickering said, about what he and other NOAA and Department of Land and Natural Resources law enforcement agents do.

“It’s just old time police work,” he said.

On Nov. 30, a young female monk seal, tagged as RF58, was found bludgeoned to death on a rocky beach in Anahola — the fifth suspicious killing of a federally protected seal in Hawaii since 2011.

Pickering said one thing that can make investigations into animal deaths more difficult than a human death is that speaking with the victim’s family, friends and neighbors is out of the question.

“Unfortunately, I’d love to be able to interview the birds and fish hanging around, but they don’t talk to us,” he said.

In some ways, Pickering said there are fewer clues to work with.

Of the five most recent seal killings in the state, only one investigation led to an arrest and conviction.

In April 2009, 78-year-old Charles Vidinha fatally shot a pregnant monk seal at Pilaa Beach, on Kauai’s North Shore. He pleaded guilty in September of that year and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay a $25 fine.

Pickering said solving that case came down to a combination of NOAA officials hitting the pavement and a bit of luck. In their investigation, he said agents tracked down a couple that had been walking along Pilaa Beach around the same time of the fatal shooting. On their camera, in the background of one particular photo, was a vehicle, parked close to the crime scene. 

The agents enlarged the photo, tracked down the vehicle and its owner, and eventually executed a search warrant of Vidinha’s house  and found the .22 caliber rifle he used in the killing, according to Pickering. 

Vidinha admitted to killing the animal but claimed he never intended to hit the animal, only scare it, according to reports.

Investigations into the other four cases since 2011, two on Molokai and two on Kauai, remain open.

As with any situation like this, Pickering said agents try to gather as much information from the crime scene and necropsy as possible. They try to determine what type of instrument, or weapon, if any, was used in the attack. And, perhaps most important, they seek help from the community. 

“Sometimes it’s a lucky tip, or it’s a matter of banging on doors,” that leads to an arrest, he said.

As with previous cases, a $5,000 reward was quickly posted for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for killing RF58. Within a week, that figure climbed to $25,000.

Pickering said while rewards can prove fruitful, they can also result in false leads. Regardless, the NOAA-DLNR team investigating RF58’s death would pursue them all, he said.

“We’ll see what it brings,” he said of the ongoing investigation. “Hopefully things will pan out.”

Anyone having any information about this or any other monk seal killing should call the NOAA OLE hotline at 1-800-853-1964 or the DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at 1-800-DLNR-TIP or 643-DLNR. All information will be held in confidence.

Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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