The California department of fish and wildlife relies on an intricate network of citizen-informants to help do its job. The agency’s secret tip line is a critical tool in the fight against wildlife crimes because, in more rural areas of the state, a single wildlife officer can be responsible for thousands of miles of territory.
Todd Kinnard is one such officer – tasked with overseeing agency operations across the expansive Lassen county, five hours north-east of San Francisco by car. He was on duty when an anonymous tip came in that someone in the county was shooting raptors, birds of prey such as red-tailed and ferruginous hawks.
Raptors are not typically the subject of poaching tips. They are agile, apex predators that – due to a diet consisting largely of pests such as rats, snakes, and mice – tend to coexist with humans rather than compete with them.
Kinnard took the tip with a grain of salt. In Lassen county, it is not unheard of for neighbors to weaponize the department’s anonymous tip line against one another out of spite. Because something as seemingly innocuous as taking one too many fish from a local pond can result in substantial government fines, grazing-rights or property-line disputes can quickly mushroom-cloud into frenzies of sometimes bogus, sometimes legitimate, tit-for-tat poaching complaints.
Kinnard drove out to the site of the alleged raptor killings to carry out a preliminary, informal knock-and-talk inquiry. It was a large-tract property, roughly 80 acres, in the unincorporated town of Standish. The property sat perched on the banks of the Susan River, a few miles east of the county seat, Susanville. The owners, Richard Parker and his wife, Tonya, were not at home at the time.
But what Kinnard saw upon entering the property was stomach-churning. A cottonwood tree near the Parkers’ home was strung up with grisly ornamentation – several dead raptors, all at varying stages of decomposition. Other bodies were scattered around the tree’s base, approximately a dozen in all.
Kinnard was not prepared to bag and tag the gruesome cache of evidence dangling from the cottonwood tree. He seized what evidence he could and took the bodies to the fish and wildlife department’s forensic laboratory in Sacramento.
The agency’s raptor specialist examined the carcasses and was able to determine species, with corresponding protected statuses. Causes of death proved more elusive, however. The bodies had been left to field for quite some time.
Still, the probability of a dozen birds of prey dying of natural causes at the same location is spectacularly low. As the Sacramento laboratory got to work on identifying causes of death, Kinnard proceeded with his own investigation. The dead raptors recovered on that day in 2018 were only the tip of a blood-red iceberg.
Richard Parker, a seemingly ordinary country gentleman, appeared to have a secret, sadistic hobby and the anonymous tipster had led Kinnard to uncover one of the bloodiest poaching cases in California history.
An anti-government streak
Lassen county is tucked away in the sparsely populated north-east of California. It sits north of Lake Tahoe along the Nevada border, and east of Redding, the last major population center before the vast wilderness stretching between northern California and southern Oregon.
Lt Kyle Kroll, who oversees game wardens in the area, describes the region around Susanville as the Honey Lake Valley, a unique ecosystem straddling a transition zone between the desert and the mountains. “But with a lot of water,” he says, “because the aquifers flow eastward into the desert. It’s a perfect habitat for raptors, because it’s a rich area that attracts a lot of their prey.”
Topography aside, Lassen is an entirely different world, culturally speaking, from the metropolitan sprawl of the Bay Area to its south-west, or even the exurbs and rich farmland of the nearby Sacramento Valley.
The population in 2019 was just over 30,500 residents, less than half that of the San Francisco suburb of Palo Alto, spread out over more than 180 times the square mileage. It is the kind of place people go to get away from the congestion of coastal California’s urban-suburban sprawl, and the many customs and regulations woven into life there.
There is a palpable anti-government streak embedded in the culture of Lassen county – a “don’t tread on me” mentality that often pits the priorities of local residents against those of state conservation officers such as Kroll and Kinnard.
California’s sole pack of wild wolves inhabits a territory encompassing parts of Lassen county. There is no love lost between the endangered canines and area ranchers, who view the pack as a direct threat to their livelihoods. (Wolves occasionally feed on cattle and sheep.)
In December of 2020, a state investigation into the shooting of a protected wolf in Lassen county laid bare these tensions by implicating a 23-year-old, sixth-generation rancher, Brett Gagnon.
“I can’t believe you guys would waste your time to investigate somebody for shooting a miserable wolf,” Gagnon’s grandfather told state agents as they executed a search warrant on the family ranch.
Gagnon was not ultimately charged with the killing. Analysis of the bullet recovered from the wolf’s body did not match any of the guns seized from the Gagnon home. The case remains open.
The ordeal did little to warm relations between the fish and wildlife department and county residents. And perhaps a flavor of that tension informed the politics of one Richard Parker.
As the fish and wildlife department’s forensic examiners poked and prodded the bodies recovered from the Parker property, Todd Kinnard remained disturbed and restless over what he could only imagine had occurred there. He knew the physical evidence against the Parkers was damning, but not conclusive, and the agency would need solid proof that one or more members of the family were behind the brutal raptor killings in order to bring about any kind of justice.
Kinnard enacted what state agents call a Code Five surveillance plan. In March 2018, for several mornings in a row, he took up a vantage point on a neighboring property and, using a high-powered scope, staked out the Parker home.
On one of these mornings, he witnessed an individual emerging from the house, rifle in hand, later determined to be Parker, according to department officials.
Kinnard says Parker took up position in the yard, raised his rifle, and shot off several rounds in different directions. Kinnard recalls watching nearby foliage explode to life as birds fled the vicinity. He now had sufficient probable cause to corroborate the initial tip and secure a search warrant.
The warrant was served on the Parkers by a team of wildlife officers in the early hours of 11 March 2018.
“I’ll be honest, we thought we were only going to find what was already around that tree,” Kroll recalls. “But that was just one of the specks of evidence that we found.” The true extent of the horror would stretch from fence to fence.
Recollecting the broader examination of the property, Kroll describes a scene of complete carnage within a 300-yard radius of the Parker home. “Every bird within reach of his house, anything he could hit, was lying there on the ground. Dozens and dozens of carcasses.”
“It was just an unbelievable amount of evidence,” Kroll says. The team needed to restrategize. Time was of the essence – many of the bodies had clearly been decomposing for some time. Some were little more than skulls and delicate wing bones.
State wildlife officers assembled in a kind of phalanx formation and began meticulously surveying the property in four waves. The first wave made initial identifications of body locations, marking points on a GPS app. The second took photographs; the third recorded copious notes on the state and positioning of the carcasses. The fourth collected and bagged them.
The process created a map of the butchery, which investigators later transposed on to satellite imagery of the Parker property. It provided unsettling insight into Parker’s bloody method.
“As he entered his property by vehicle, any raptors he’d see perched along the access road he’d shoot,” Kroll says. “It was a row of dots along the road and around his home.”
Parker, for his part, was surprised by the raid, yet calm, Kroll recalls. Kinnard obtained an admission on the scene from Parker that he had shot a red-tailed hawk just the day before. The justification offered was that he believed the raptors were killing off local game birds.
“He was an upland game hunter,” Kroll says, conceding that raptors are known to predate on certain species of quail, dove and pheasant, favored by sportsmen. “He said he thought he was doing the game bird population a favor by eradicating the predators.”
Kroll believes this may have been Parker’s original intent, “but it eventually became a sick sport”, he speculates. “There might have been an adrenaline rush; people get addicted to that. We see that from time to time with the larger-scale poaching cases.”
Likewise, the map of Parker’s killings seemingly refutes the notion that his motives lay chiefly with preserving the area game bird population. All of the bodies recovered from Parker’s property were killed along the access road and in the immediate vicinity of his home. There is no evidence to suggest he made treks further afield to enact this purported, self-directed population-control program.