Welcome back to Member Monday. Today it’s a pleasure to feature Writers Forum member Steve Callan. Steve’s book, Badges, Bears and Eagles, released on March 1 and can be purchased now on Amazon.com. His book describes what it’s like to be a California Fish and Game warden during the last quarter of the Twentieth Century-working routine details from one end of the state to the other and conducting some of the most successful wildlife-related investigations in California history.
An Excerpt from Badges, Bears and Eagles:
Chapter 14 “Gill Netters”
by Steve Callan
By the time Albert reached the bridge, there was plenty of sunlight, so he dropped behind a railing and directed his binoculars toward the gill net. He was just in time to see a man paddling across the river in the little orange boat. A few minutes later, the same man was freeing the gill net from the cement piling.
It’s getting light, thought Nick. It figures that this guy might be getting ready to leave. Should I wait for backup here by his truck or move in now, catch him in the act and make sure he doesn’t get away?
Twenty-four years and two promotions later, now retired Patrol Captain Nick Albert provided me with a little insight into the decisions he made that day: “Catching a gill-netter in the act was so difficult and rare that I was desperate not to let the violator escape. On the North Coast it was one of our major violations. I had hoped to catch him before he made it very far but that isn’t what happened. Even though things worked out in the end, in hindsight I would have done it differently.”
Without waiting for backup, the young, enthusiastic warden crossed the bridge and began a slow sprint up the south side of the river. Most of the south shoreline was exposed sandy beach with very few hiding places—Nick would have to stay out of sight the best he could and hope for the best. Fortunately, the original suspect and an adult female were busy pulling in the gill net as Albert approached.
Warden Albert stopped behind a pile of driftwood and watched the two gill netters remove a large salmon from the net. The woman was medium height, thin and looked like she hadn’t used a hairbrush in weeks. She wore a bright red, full-length coat. Albert watched her pick up the salmon by the gills and carry it across the beach toward a patch of high grass. The adult male suspect was about Albert’s size, with short brown hair and a mustache. Both subjects appeared to be in their early to mid-thirties. The man continued to work on the net, removing debris and attempting to untangle a large steelhead.
I’ve seen enough, thought Albert. It’s time to end this thing.
Stepping away from his cover, Warden Albert walked across the beach toward the violators. The woman, later identified as Marla Kay Vinuchi, spotted the warden first and dropped the salmon she was carrying. “State Fish and Game!” shouted Albert. “Stay right where you are.” The male suspect, later identified as Ronald DeWayne Tucker, was preoccupied with trying to untangle the steelhead. When he finally saw the officer approaching, he jumped to his feet and stared, wild-eyed, back at him. Brandishing a large hunting knife, Tucker began walking toward Warden Albert.
“Drop the knife and stay right where you are,” ordered Albert. Tucker ignored the command and kept coming. When he had reached a point Warden Albert considered his minimum danger zone, Albert drew his revolver. “I am not going to tell you again, drop the knife!” Tucker finally came to a standstill and tossed the knife aside. His eyes still had the crazed look of a trapped animal. Although no longer armed with a knife, Tucker was clearly weighing his options. Albert flashed back to the suspect’s green pickup, which was missing both the front and back license plates; this scofflaw had little use for society’s rules and regulations.
“Show me your ID,” Warden Albert demanded, without lowering his gun.
“Gotta take off my chest waders first,” Tucker said in a gruff yet whiny voice.
“Go ahead,” Albert said, gesturing with the gun.
“That net ain’t mine,” said Tucker, as he took his time removing the chest waders. “Me and my girlfriend … we was just camping on the beach. We seen the net and thought we’d get it outta the river.”
“I’ve been watching you for the last hour. You’re both under arrest.”
Upon being advised that he was under arrest, Tucker jumped to his feet, dove into the river and began swimming toward the other side. Vinuchi ran off in the opposite direction.
With the ambient air temperature in the thirties and the water not much warmer, Tucker’s stunt took the young warden completely by surprise. Determined to prevent Tucker’s escape, Warden Albert threw all caution aside, dropped his radio on the beach and dove in after him—in full uniform, including gun belt, boots and jacket. He caught up with Tucker about a third of the way across the river. Already tiring, Tucker grabbed at Albert, trying to climb on his back. Warden Albert came to the wise conclusion that an arrest in ten feet of water could be extremely dangerous, particularly with a .357 magnum revolver hanging from his waist and the overwhelming weight of boots and a wet uniform pulling him down in the brutally cold water. He pushed Tucker away and swam back to the south shore.
Albert reached the shore and sloshed his way toward the orange rowboat. Water gushed from the hole at the bottom of his holster and his soaked jacket weighed him down with every awkward step. Tucker had continued swimming across the river and was now crying out for help.
What a mess, thought Albert. Now that crazy son of a bitch is about to drown.
Albert picked up his portable radio, dragged the tiny row boat to the water’s edge and jumped aboard. With a single oar to use as a paddle, he thrashed across the river, fighting the fatigue overtaking his frozen, water-soaked body. A few minutes earlier, Warden Albert’s primary concern had been preventing the gill-netter from getting away. Now it was saving the man’s life.
Meanwhile, Marla Vinuchi had made her way to a nearby road, where she tried to pay a couple fishermen to drive her into town. One of the fishermen happened to be the original informant. When he told her that he knew she was involved with the gill net and the game warden was after her, she ran back into the brush and disappeared.
Tucker continued to swim toward the north shore, all the while yelling for help. He managed to reach the shore just ahead of the rapidly paddling warden. In his stocking feet, Tucker climbed the steep riverbank and, for a few minutes, was out of Albert’s sight. Warden Albert beached the boat and grabbed his radio.
“Outrun this,” said Albert, gasping for breath and still soaked to the gills. “Humboldt Dispatch, Fish and Game 1313.”
“Go ahead Fish and Game 1313.”
“I would like to request a BOLO” (be on the lookout).
“Go ahead with your information.”
“The adult male subject was last seen at 0845 hours, on the north bank of the Madd River, approximately one half mile downstream from Highway 101. He is running in the direction of Highway 101.” Albert paused to catch his breath. “The subject is described as a white male, approximately thirty-five years old, five feet eight inches tall, with brown hair and a mustache. He was last seen wearing brown overalls and a blue jacket.”
“Ten-Four,” said the dispatcher.
Water dripped from Warden Albert’s clothing as he reached the top of the riverbank. He could see Tucker running across a pasture, in the direction of Highway 101.