Man guilty of illegally possessing bald eagle

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Dec. 18, 2012 at 6:18 a.m.
Updated Dec. 19, 2012 at 6:19 a.m.

Eaglets sit in a nest in Delta, British Columbia, Canada.

Eaglets sit in a nest in Delta, British Columbia, Canada.

A jury found a man guilty Tuesday of illegally possessing an American symbol.

Sam Mathew was convicted in Victoria federal court of violating the U.S. Migratory Bird Act, an offense punishable by up to six months in prison. A $15,000 fine could also be assessed.

A Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden found a baby bald eagle alongside feces in a hay-filled container in Mathew's locked up barn in late February.

Mathew, who testified in his own defense Tuesday, said he tried to save the endangered creature about 24 hours prior when he noticed it dangling dangerously from a tree on his ranch on the edge of Wharton and Matagorda counties.

His version of events varied drastically from that of the government's star witness, Vonda Smith, a neighbor who revered and often photographed the eaglet - which she named "Libby" or "Liberty."

She tearfully told jurors Monday that Mathew bragged days before it disappeared from its usual perch that the eaglet belonged to him and that he'd train it how to land on his arm.

"That is absolutely not true," Mathew said Tuesday, adding he also never asked his Spanish-speaking ranch hand to lie to law enforcement when questioned about it later.

The ranch hand, Eduardo Gomez-Sanchez, testified Mathew ordered him to climb up the tall, skinny tree and scoop the bird from its nest as its parents soared overhead. He said Mathew, who does not speak Spanish, told him later to say they'd found it in the grass.

Gomez-Sanchez, of Honduras, faces deportation after entering the U.S. a second time illegally.

Mathew said he couldn't "let nature take its course" as livestock would've trampled or eaten the eaglet had it fallen.

"I believed that the bird was in danger ... that it was very precious to this country," he said.

During cross examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Hubert Booth pointed out that Mathew seemed to collect birds, such as chickens, pheasants and peacocks, the latter of which is the national bird of his home country of India.

"You must admit that an eagle would be a prize amongst all these birds," she said while displaying pictures of a chicken coop he assembled on his property.

Mathew, who became a U.S. citizen 23 years ago after completing a test, also used to live in Saudi Arabia. In that country, Hubert Booth said, "falconry," or training birds of prey, is a big sport.

During closing statements, defense attorney Jimmy Granberry and Assistant U.S. Attorney Hugo Martinez, both of Corpus Christi, debated the meaning of "immediately." That's because the U.S. Migratory Bird Act allows for possession of nongame birds only if they are hurt and one immediately transports it to be rehabilitated.

Mathew, who was in the middle of moving and on crutches at the time, said he didn't have access to the Internet. He said his cell phone also had no signal so he couldn't call a friend or authorities after his rescue mission concluded at about 7 or 8 that night and he headed back to Houston.

"What is immediate? Soon enough to save the eagle's life, and that's what my client did," Granberry said. "It may not have been perfect or as quick as we would have liked."

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

Martinez, meanwhile, said it was all too convenient that the eaglet supposedly fell out of the tree days after Smith reported her concerns about Mathew taking it as a pet to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He said Mathew had ample opportunity to call for help.

Other witnesses called included Santos P. Garcia, a bilingual Needville man who originally translated for the ranch hands and investigators at the scene; and Rodney Janzack, a ranching friend of Mathew's.

Janzack testified Mathew called him at 8 that morning after he rescued the bird for advice. He said he couldn't help Mathew because he was rounding up some of his loose cows.

Martinez reminded Janzack that he originally told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Mathew had called him in the afternoon, not in the morning. After pleading the fifth for one question, Janzack admitted he didn't originally see what all the fuss was about.

"Why is this a big deal? I'll tell you why this is a big deal," Martinez said before launching into a story about his young son inquiring about the case. "He said, 'Dad, you can't take a bald eagle. They live in Washington, D.C.' ... Even a 7-year-old knows that."

Granberry said afterward the verdict he was disappointed in the verdict. He said the 1918 statute is broad because it was designed mainly to protect the migratory birds from being killed - something that fortunately didn't happen in this instance.

"It was a hard case to win," Granberry said.

Mathew is expected to be sentenced by U.S. Judge Brian L. Owsley in February.



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