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Witness said man charged with possessing baby bald eagle wanted to train it

By Jessica Priest
Dec. 17, 2012 at 6:17 a.m.


Vonda Smith had grown fond of a baby bald eagle she discovered living in a tree on her neighbor's Wharton County ranch.

She'd grown so fond of it that she called it "Libby" - short for "Liberty" - while blogging about its growth to friends and family on Facebook.

That's why she cried Monday as jurors in a Victoria federal courtroom watched a video of its little head poking up from a 4- to 6-foot-wide nest.

She'd shot the footage about a year ago while standing some 75 to 100 feet away. She said she was marveling in its parents' "majestic" ability to protect it from the elements and even the littlest of intruders, such as a sparrow.

"They're not there any more," she said while dabbing her eyes of tears.

Smith was testifying in the trial of Sam Mathew, who is charged with violating the United States' Migratory Bird Act, a federal law that prohibits possessing, capturing or killing the endangered bird.

She said she warned the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department about Mathew in February after he told her that the baby bald eagle belonged to him.

A day later, she said, it disappeared.

"He said, 'I'm going to take it. ... I'm going to train the eagle to fly down on my arm," Smith said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hugo Ricardo Martinez said in opening statements that Mathew, who was on crutches at the time of the incident, asked his Spanish-speaking ranch hand to scale the tree and retrieve the baby bald eagle for him.

The ranch hand, an illegal immigrant from Honduras named Eduardo Sanchez-Gomez, testified the bird was in no danger and still in its nest when he scooped it up and put it in a feed sack for his boss.

He said he was scared as the adult bald eagles soared overhead.

"But I was just following orders," Sanchez-Gomez said through a translator.

Chris Bird, a game warden, testified he found the baby bald eagle some 24 hours later sitting alongside feces in a hay-filled container in Mathew's locked-up barn.

Bird said Mathew and the ranch hands fed the baby eagle some type of processed chicken.

Angela Dodge, a public information officer for the Southern District of Texas, said via email that the bird is alive and at a sanctuary.

Defense attorney James Dewey Granberry, of Corpus Christi, contended throughout the day that Mathew was trying to save the baby bald eagle's life. He said Mathew fed it raw chicken and was always forthcoming to officials about its whereabouts.

Jurors heard an audio recording, which was admitted into evidence, of a phone call Bird made to Mathew concerning it.

"Is this about the eagle?" Mathew is heard saying, cutting to the chase first.

Granberry said Mathew noticed the baby bald eagle had fallen out of its nest and was clutching precariously to a tree limb with its talons as its parents were out hunting.

"If he had walked away from it, it was surely going to fall," Granberry said, adding Mathew later called a friend to help it. "He (Mathew) was trying to do what was right."

Granberry described his client as a respectable businessman who emigrated from India some 20 years ago. He said a language barrier may have prevented Sanchez-Gomez from understanding Mathew's request that day.

"Sam is a person who loves livestock, who loves animals," he said.

Sanchez-Gomez, who is charged with entering the country illegally for the second time, faces deportation.

The defense is expected to cross examine Sanchez-Gomez on Tuesday.

The trial will continue at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday before U.S. Judge Brian L. Owsley.

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