How Wardens Get the Guilty to Confess

How Wardens Get the Guilty to Confess

If a conservation warden rings your doorbell and asks to talk, and you know why the officer is there, it’s probably time to come clean.

Likewise, if a warden pulls in behind your truck after your morning hunt, checks your license, asks some questions, pauses thoughtfully after your final answer, and offers you a seat on the tailgate, it’s likely time to fess up.

Rule of thumb: When wardens make special visits or spend more than five minutes with you in the field, they’re not lost or lonely. You’re probably about to enter the “truck of truth,” that neutral place where wrongdoers confess their sins. And it’s probably your last chance at minimal fines, humiliation, and minor degradation of your reputation.

If you decline the warden’s “invitation” and drive off with a smart-assed “Good luck with your little investigation,” one thing is certain: You’ll meet again. The only question is when. But on that fateful day, you’ll probably be in far worse trouble and deeper social mud than if you had confessed when given the chance.

“When a warden comes knocking or hangs around after the routine license-check, it’s not a fishing expedition,” said Ed McCann, a 21-year law-enforcement veteran with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. McCann supervises the DNR’s training program for new conservation wardens, and previously served a decade as an investigator.

“I don’t have time to interview just anyone who might know something,” McCann said. “I know what my cards are, and I can make an informed guess on the hand you’re holding. You probably know why I’m there, and you should assume I know something you don’t know I know. I don’t want to catch you in a lie. I want you to tell the truth. You’ll save everyone, including yourself, a lot of time and lost sleep. But if you make me leave, and you think it’s finished, I guarantee it’s only beginning.”

Simple Screw-Ups Conservation wardens try to avoid such challenges because they know most hunters, anglers, and trappers are everyday folks who simply screwed up. Sure, wardens might jokingly say, “A violator is a sportsman without opportunity,” but they do their best not to become cynical. They don’t want good citizens to turn minor offenses into expensive, ridiculous, long-running problems.

“Everyone makes mistakes, but few people commit murders,” said Sam Lawry, who spent 23 years in law enforcement with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Lawry recently shared many memorable cases in his book “Stories of the Past (1984-2004): An Arizona Game Ranger Remembering the Outlaws.” Lawry read one of those stories, “The Mud Puddle,” for MeatEater’s best-selling “Campfire Stories" audiobook.

“When I interviewed people, I kept an open mind and tried to be sympathetic,” Lawry said. “Hunters and fishermen can get excited. They’ll do something they’d normally never do. I’d remind them they didn’t kill anyone. I’d tell them: ‘We’ll get through this. Just tell me what happened.’ You build a relationship so they want to talk to you. I did my best to treat them fairly; the way I’d want to be treated.”

Tom Krsnich spent 36 years enforcing fish, wildlife, and environmental laws for the Wisconsin DNR. Fellow wardens who worked with Krsnich praise this highly successful investigator for his interviewing skills. Like Lawry and McCann, Krsnich credits his success to fairness.

“I tried to empathize with their situation,” Krsnich said. “It’s not about tricking people or deceiving them into making confessions. Even people who are doing nothing wrong get nervous when a warden pulls up in a truck or boat. I tried to defuse that. Most people don’t want to lie. If I suspected something was going on, I’d lower the tailgate and take a seat. I’d establish rapport by asking about their hunt and learning something about them.

“If you show interest in them as people, it’s easier for them to tell the truth. They’ll admit they did something stupid when seeing the buck of a lifetime. Or they’ll admit they hadn’t caught many fish in a long time, and just couldn’t put down their rod when they had their limit. I’m a hunter and fisherman, too, so I get that. But my empathy didn’t change my job requirements. When I handed them the citation, I hoped they felt I treated them with respect.”

Burrowing In Invariably, some violators lie and force wardens to try different approaches. “If I get a complaint that someone was keeping trout in a catch-and-release stream, and I saw your vehicle there at the time, if you say you weren’t there I assume there’s a deeper deception,” McCann said. “Why are you being deceptive in the heart of the moment? Now I have cause to ask more questions. I need to learn why you’re not telling the truth.”

McCann also said today’s technology makes fact-checking faster than ever. “With the connectivity of the internet, I can pick up the phone and text a guy in Idaho while interviewing someone in Wisconsin. You can verify a lie so fast today that you can use it in your follow-up question.”

Krsnich said violators typically work up a cover story by the time a warden arrives, and he was always eager to hear it. “Some crime-interview experts say you shouldn’t let people lie to you,” Krsnich said. “They recommend interrupting the lie, but you have to be open-minded. It’s possible you misinterpreted something you saw or heard. So, put your ego in check, and trust the facts to support or discredit the story.

“I let people talk, even if it had nothing to do with the dead ducks or deer I was looking at,” Krsnich continued. “Most stories didn’t line up with the evidence on the ground or what I witnessed. I stayed patient, listened, and took notes. If the facts revealed he was lying, I refuted his story step by step. There’s always multiple opinions and perspectives, but only one set of facts. The more facts you know, the harder it is for someone to keep lying.”

Lawry took much the same approach. “I’d let them hang themselves as high as they wanted,” he said. “I wouldn’t react to anything they told me. Their story kept building and building, and I let them keep adding mud until I’d heard enough to start tearing it down.”

McCann recalled investigating a complaint involving a bowhunter who killed a big buck and had his brother-in-law tag it. When he interviewed the men, they stuck to their story, even though it was horribly crafted.

“The guy who tagged the buck stood 5-foot-8 and showed me his bow, which looked like it belonged to someone much taller than him,” McCann said. “In fact, it looked like it would fit his brother-in-law, who stood 6-foot-4. I also noticed it was a right-handed bow, and the shorter guy who tagged the buck was left-handed. There’s no way that guy shot that bow or killed that buck. They both ended up paying thousands in legal fees to fight a $300 citation, which they ended up paying anyway.”

Tricks of the Trade? Lawry said violators often accuse wardens of deceptions and dirty tricks, but he thinks it’s more about cleverly gathering evidence and piecing together facts. While investigating a bear poaching case he describes in his book, Lawry recovered several empty shell casings from a .30-30 rifle and 9mm and .38-caliber handguns.

He soon zeroed in on two suspects but did not reveal he was investigating a poaching case when pulling them over for littering. Lawry told them he’d let the littering ride with just a warning, and then casually admired the Sig Sauer 9mm handgun that one suspect carried on his hip.

“I told him our department was considering semi-autos, but I liked my .357,” Lawry said. “I asked if I could shoot his gun to see if I liked it. He was real proud of it, and said it was the smoothest shooting gun he’s ever owned. He grabbed an empty beer can from their truck bed and told me to put it on a stump 20 yards away. I fired three shots and didn’t touch the can. He said, ‘Let me show you how it’s done,’ and shot the can three times. I watched to see where the casings landed. After they left, I picked up the can and found four of the casings. The crime lab matched them with those I found by the poached bear, and I started making my case.”

Lawry drove to the man’s house and asked to visit with him on the porch about a bear poaching case. “I said: ‘Remember when I shot your gun? I didn’t need to see how it shot. I needed a shell casing to match those I found by the poached bear. I think you know the results.’ He stood up and said, ‘Why you coyote son of a bitch! You coyote son of a bitch!’

“From that time on, people said to be careful and to watch me because I’d B.S. them,” Lawry continued. “Well, I might pull a trick on a suspect, but I never made a promise I didn’t honor. If I told someone I’d put in a good word with the DA and judge if they cooperated, I stood by it.”

Portrait of a Crime Krsnich also draws a line between trickery and deceit. “I like a little trickery to coax information out of people, but I didn’t lie or deceive anyone, even if they were liars to the core,” he said. “I remember a repeat violator whose main joy in life was getting things over on me. You know that Hank Williams Jr. song “A Country Boy Can Survive”? That’s him. ‘I got a shotgun, a rifle, and a four-wheel drive.’ He was good in the woods and on the river, but he thought society’s rules didn’t apply to him.”

Krsnich eventually prevailed when called to a sturgeon-poaching scene where the “country boy” and an accomplice got into a fight with a conservation warden. They injured the warden, so Krsnich knew the case would involve criminal charges. He also knew the “country boy” wouldn’t cooperate once Krsnich read him his Miranda rights against self-incrimination.

“I did a bit of Columbo on him by drawing a diagram of the scene, and saying I just needed him to help me better understand what happened. I said, ‘Your buddy was here, the warden found the sturgeon here, you were somewhere else, the fight started here, and …’

“Well, he took the paper and drew a more accurate diagram. He told the whole story in several drawings that looked like cartoons. I asked if he would write it all up so the DA could understand it better, but he refused to put anything in writing. When we prosecuted the case, we used those diagrams and his oral statements to fill in the blanks. I have to say, I fairly enjoyed that one.”

Anyone Will Lie Lawry said the best way to get people to quit lying is to learn what kept them from telling the truth. “Given sufficient motive, anyone will lie,” he said. “I used to teach state and federal agents how to identify deception, and other aspects of being a human lie-detector. But where do you go if they stick with their lie? You have to figure out why they’re lying, their motive for lying. It usually comes down to something they fear. Once you identify and remove that fear, you unravel the truth.”

Lawry said people typically lie because they fear having their gun, bow, truck, boat or other gear confiscated. They also fear losing their job or being disgraced in their family, community, or church. He assured violators that if news of their violation spread, it wasn’t because of him. “In most cases, if things got out there, it was because of them or someone close to them telling people,” Lawry said. “It didn’t come from me.”

Given Lawry’s assurances and understanding, the violators often relented. “They’d take that deep breath and say, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ That’s when I knew I had them,” Lawry said. “Then you knew they felt remorse and were ready to talk.”

In another case from his book, Lawry couldn’t get a man to admit he and his teenage son had killed five bucks, and then put tags from his non-hunting wife and two younger sons on three of the deer. No matter how many facts Lawry shared with the man, and no matter how hard he tried to learn the man’s fears, Lawry couldn’t get him to confess that he and his son killed the deer illegally.

“I finally told him I was there to work with him, and I didn’t want to pull his wife and kids any further into it,” Lawry said. “Where do you work, Mr. R.? Is that what’s holding you up?”

Blouks! The man said he was a pastor at the White Mountain Christian Church. Still, he hesitated to say anything more. “That’s when I played the God card,” Lawry said. “I told him I’m lied to all the time and kind of expect it. But as a God-fearing man myself, I expected a clergyman to set aside mortal fears and let his religious virtues guide him to the truth.”

Conclusion The man finally confessed, took the citation, and watched Lawry drive off with the five deer, which went to the “Love Kitchen,” a local charity.

“That’s how wardens like a case to end,” Lawry said. “The guy says ‘you got me,’ and maybe he pays a heavy fine, but you leave after shaking hands.”

McCann holds a similar view. “The thing we stress with new wardens is that most people don’t go out on the water or into the woods hoping to break the law,” he said. “They’re basically good people, but then something happens. They get greedy and impulsive and take advantage of a situation. They might tell their kids that ‘honesty is the best policy,’ but they don’t truly believe it or practice it until they’ve tried everything else and can’t avoid the consequences.”

Feature image via Captured Creative.