The Egg Men

Volunteers spend millions of hours trying to rescue sea turtles. So how come so few people care about busting poachers?

A former Cincinnati police lieutenant brought in to root out corruption in the department, Williams criticizes conservation commission officers for conducting undercover stings in Riviera Beach. "Some of those other agencies do us a disservice when they ride around and ask dope dealers about an alleged industry," Williams asserts. "If you go around and ask dope dealers and prostitutes where you can find something, they're going to tell you they can get it for you, whether they can or not. If I sound a little perplexed, it's because I am."


On a sweltering Thursday night, conservation commission officer Chris Harris takes a seat next to two gray-haired men at Club T Rays, a ramshackle bar on Dixie Highway in Riviera Beach. Harris, who is black, like every patron inside Club T Rays this August evening, starts up some small talk about the Steelers game on the TV above the bar. But he stands out in his pressed jeans and plaid shirt.

He later recalls the conversation he had with the two men, starting with small talk and easing in for the kill. "You all ever used Viagra?" he asks the two men next to him.

"Oh yeah, I've got some in my pocket now," one of them replies.

"You know what's even better than Viagra?" Harris asks tentatively. "Sea turtle eggs."

"Oh, man," the other guy says. "You can get your ass into big trouble with turtle eggs."

But the two tell Harris they know a few spots in Riviera Beach where a man can score eggs. There's the liquor store parking lot on Dixie Highway and the get-anything-you-need street corner on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. After his conversation with the pair ends, Harris heads out to a dinged-up Toyota pickup in the bar's parking lot, where he relays what he learned to Capt. Ardelean, who grabs a radio and orders a pack of officers waiting around the corner to follow Harris to a new spot.

Undercover stings like this one may soon become more common, Ardelean says. But the logistics make them difficult to plan. Ardelean has to pay about a dozen employees overtime to spend most of the night waiting in pickup trucks as backup. And he must find a black officer willing and able to go undercover. Of the conservation commission's 665 officers, only 13, less than 2 percent, are black. Harris is one of two black officers in the region. Usually, he spends his days patrolling Okeechobee County, busting fishermen for pulling in too many catfish or hunters targeting wild turkeys off-season.

Around the corner from Club T Rays, Harris walks up to a group of men beside a pickup truck outside a convenience store. In the crowd, a dope dealer on a bicycle claims to know a guy named "Bow Legs" who deals in turtle eggs. Harris tells the dealer he has a cooler of fish in the back of his truck that he is willing to trade for eggs. The dealer pedals over to a pay phone while Harris waits for an arduous 22 minutes under a streetlight. Cars constantly pull into the store parking lot, apparently to exchange cash for drugs.

A nervous Ardelean circles his Lumina past Harris every minute or so to make sure his undercover man isn't in trouble. Ardelean, who is 46 years old, knows a bit about the streets. He grew up in a tough part of Miami. And he knows about poaching too. He caught snook and spiny lobsters off-season as a kid; for him, it was a matter of catching dinner. "My father died when I was 13, and we needed food; that's why I did it," he says. "They always say it takes one to catch one."

If the drug dealer on the bicycle comes back with eggs, Ardelean plans to deep-freeze a few and ship them to the University of Florida, as he does after every sea turtle poaching arrest. The genetics analysis laboratory would take a snippet from a shell to compare its DNA with a database that can pinpoint the region where the eggs were laid. Even the sand on the eggs can be matched to granules found in the dealer's shoes.

Harris crosses his legs and leans against the pickup while waiting for the bicycle-riding drug dealer to return. On his last pass, Ardelean spots Harris briefly talking with the man, then jumping into the pickup empty-handed. "He's got eggs, but he's fixin' his car tonight," Harris tells Ardelean over the radio. It would raise suspicion if they push him to make the sale. So, a few minutes shy of 10 p.m., Ardelean calls off Harris and his horde of backup officers. They sort out the lessons from the failed sting operation over pancakes and greasy burgers at a nearby International House of Pancakes. Harris hopes his work will provide inroads for next season. Starting in May, Harris says he plans to return to Riviera Beach a few times over several weeks with a cooler of fish to sell. He'll gain the old-timers' trust, then ask about eggs. "Everybody's peddling something out there: crack, fish, whatever," Harris says. "It won't be too hard for me to fit in once I've sold something to them."

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