Caked in mud, the black Chevy pickup made a careful left turn from the main highway onto a dirt driveway in rural Southwest Florida. Four young men in jeans and scuffed-up cowboy boots hopped out to meet their new business partner, a lanky, middle-aged Hawaiian guy named Curtis Blackledge.
After exchanging hellos, the boys lowered the tailgate and lifted a silver tarp to reveal their hidden cargo: 16 live alligators.
The hourlong drive to Sunshine Alligator Farm from their home in LaBelle had been long, but the delivery arrived without injury. The gators, which measured from more than eight feet to just over a foot long, were piled in with their mouths and limbs taped to prevent them from tussling with one another on the ride over. Assessing the haul, Blackledge wrote a check for $1,600.
"Not a bad paycheck for two nights of work," 24-year-old Matthew Evors said. "It's better than selling dope."
The young gator sellers didn't know it at the time, but Blackledge had a secret agenda: His real name was Jeff Babauta, and he'd been sent by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to round up alligator poachers. On a two-year undercover sting in the heart of the state's gator country, "Blackledge" would become a trusted figure, buying and selling hundreds of gators — but all along, secretly tracking everyone.
On May 24, FWC finally dropped the hammer on "Operation Alligator Thief" and made nine arrests, accusing hunters of everything from bilking the state out of tens of thousands of dollars to illegally stealing scores of gators to even grilling up a federally protected bird for lunch. After one of the agency's longest and most ambitious undercover operations, the state even threw racketeering charges at four of the men.
"These people were committing not only the wildlife violations, but theft from the state of Florida," statewide prosecutor Nick Cox told reporters in May. "And if you commit theft as a criminal enterprise, as a criminal organization, you're guilty as well of racketeering."
Beyond its obvious appeal as "Florida Man" fodder, the case opens a window into the state's underground alligator culture, where illegal activity is pervasive and perps rarely get caught. Nearly half of the alleged poachers now face decades in prison for schemes they almost certainly would have gotten away with if not for the elaborate operation.
The case is also the clearest sign yet that there's real money in selling alligators. Over the years, gator eggs have sold for more than $60 a pop, while skins have fetched up to $40 a foot. In 2015 alone, Florida's 17 active alligator farms sold $6.8 million in hides and $1.7 million of meat — figures that don't include off-the-book sales, which are rampant because it's impossible to inventory every alligator and nest across the state.
In fact, the booming industry is so ripe for abuse that even some of the defendants in the case say the investigation was long overdue.
"If they would have kept that operation quiet, I think, in my opinion, they would have caught a lot more people," says Wayne Nichols, a 42-year-old wildlife safari guide charged in the sting. "I don't think they really even scratched the surface of what's going on."
Four weeks after bonding out of jail, Nichols stands on the bed of his Silverado and tears open a huge bag of raw chicken. It's feeding time at Florida Lizards LLC, the alligator farm he opened last year on a vast expanse of land his family has owned for at least five generations in Fort Ogden, a tiny town northeast of where the Peace River runs into Charlotte Harbor.
"I grew up right there," he says, pointing to his mom's house. "We saw alligators almost daily."
Dressed in khaki shorts and a pair of Margaritaville flip-flops, Nichols is quiet but affable. His six-foot frame and 200-pound build make it easy to picture his former life as a correctional officer in state prisons, where he worked for years until a round of layoffs forced him into the alligator business in 2011.
"Rick Scott got elected and shut down half the damn prisons in the state," he explains. "That's how I got into this."
As Nichols tosses thighs and drumsticks over a chainlink fence, the gators quietly emerge from the pond, rippling the water's surface. They chomp down on the chicken and swallow the bones whole. In the background, birds chirp and a warm breeze blows. It's a surprisingly serene scene.
Floridians like Nichols who have grown up alongside alligators show a certain reverence for the prehistoric reptiles, whose ancestors have been around for at least 200 million years. The state's native population lived in tandem with the swamp beasts, which were killed for food and whose teeth were worn as jewelry. But as European settlers popularized gator hunting in the 1800s, alligator populations took a century-long nosedive before making one of the greatest comebacks of any endangered species in American history.
By all accounts, gators lived in Florida millions of years before the peninsula even had a name. An ancient skull found in Marion County recently helped researchers determine that the state's official reptile has made it 8 million years virtually unchanged by evolution.
Because alligators are found only in the southern United States and China, settlers had no words to describe the strange creatures after Spanish explorers arrived in Florida in the early 1500s. They called the oversize reptiles el lagarto — the lizard. The term was anglicized into "alligator" after Florida was handed over to the Brits in the 1760s.
At first, the European settlers killed gators because they were dangerous and threatened livestock. But by the mid-1800s, hunters began killing them for fashion. Around 1855, French designers began using alligator hides to make handbags and shoes, leading to a full-on frenzy for gator skins. In just one century, Florida hunters killed off an estimated 10 million alligators. By the 1950s, the total number across the United States dwindled to just 100,000.
Fearing the population might never recover, Florida outlawed gator hunting in 1962. Five years later, federal authorities followed suit, classifying alligators as an endangered animal.
It worked: Within just a few years, the species had made such an impressive recovery that the nation's swamps were teeming with the huge reptiles. Wildlife officials removed alligators from the endangered species list in 1987, calling it one of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act.
So when Florida began issuing gator-hunting licenses the following summer, preservationists protested. Critics said it was unconscionable to turn the state's wildlife into an economic commodity, while papers like the Christian Science Monitor suggested the American alligator was "too commercially valuable to ever be altogether safe." But the hunt continued; by 1993, Florida was producing more gator hides and meat than anywhere else in the country.
Although Louisiana has since taken the crown, Florida's annual alligator hunt — soon to be in its 30th season — still runs annually from August to November. Under state regulations, gators can be killed with bows and arrows, gigs, spear guns, fishing poles, and harpoons. Hunters aren't allowed to use firearms unless it's a device called a bang stick, which shoots a projectile into the gator's spinal cord and brain, causing instant death. Each of the state's 6,000 public hunting permits comes with two tags for the capture of two gators, with a limit of 20 alligators per person.
Oddly enough, revenue from the hunting program — nearly $2 million per year — has helped FWC fund conservation for the alligators left behind. Wildlife officials now estimate the state has a healthy and stable population of 1.3 million.
When Nichols' ancestors arrived in Florida five generations ago, gator hunting was still largely unregulated. His mother's side, the Boggess family, made their home in DeSoto County, a rural area due east of Sarasota, where they ran cattle and citrus farms. "My mom is like an original Florida pioneer," Nichols says.
Growing up, he and his friends roamed a still-wild state. They ran through swamp grass and swam carefree in creeks. "I never once thought about gators or was worried about a gator," he says.
It would be years before he made his living trapping them. After studying business at South Florida State College, Nichols began his career as a correctional officer at DeSoto Annex in 1995. He punched in and out of state facilities for 16 years, working with mentally ill inmates, juvenile delinquents, and sexually violent predators until the state cut into prison funding in 2011. When newly elected Gov. Rick Scott shut down several rural facilities that summer, Nichols and his 400 co-workers at the DeSoto Juvenile Correction Facility lost their jobs.
Out of work, Nichols beefed up his side gig leading guided turkey and hog hunts, and then learned that a gator-hunting license was cheaper than the fine for trapping without one. License in hand, he began contracting with landowners, paying them to catch gators from their property and then selling what he caught to nearby processors. He made surprisingly decent money: Nichols could put in just a few days of work at the end of the month and still comfortably pay his bills.
"This gator thing was freakin' awesome," he says. "I got paid to run around on your property and kill stuff."
When he wasn't trapping, Nichols led guided alligator hunts for top-dollar clients. At first, he easily claimed several hunting permits, but as reality shows like Gator Boys and Swamp People gained popularity, competition grew stiff.
"After Swamp People and all that shit came out, you had 11,000, 12,000 people applying for tags," Nichols says.
It wasn't all bad, though: The shows also fueled a surge in prices as alligator meat became a novelty in restaurants throughout the South. From 2013 to 2015, the price doubled to $8.75 a pound on the wholesale market, and trappers couldn't catch enough alligators to meet the demand. The market for hides could be even more lucrative, but it was notoriously volatile — depending upon the demand from European fashion designers, alligator skins could sell for anywhere from $20 to $40 per foot.
Though Nichols was social with other alligator harvesters, he followed their cue and kept mum about whom he was working for and how much he was pulling in. He worried the secret would get out if people learned how much easier it was to run an alligator farm than a cattle ranch. Unlike other farm-raised animals, gators almost never got sick, didn't need vaccinations, could survive with very little food, and were content on swampy, unkempt land that wasn't of much use for anything else.
"It's a quiet group," Nichols says. "Nobody wants to even know that you do that, for the most part."
After five years of hunting gators, Nichols started his own farm, where he could legally sell as many alligators as he could raise. When Sunshine Alligator Farm called in May 2016 to ask if he wanted to buy any gators, Nichols leapt at the chance.
In hindsight, there was something strange about the farm and its proprietor, though. At their first meeting, Blackledge's golden retriever snubbed him and made a beeline for his Silverado instead. Nichols thought it was odd; retrievers were usually such friendly dogs.
"He went straight to my truck and started sniffing doors, sniffing tires," Nichols says. "I told the guy: 'Hey, man, he acts like a K9.'"
Blackledge laughed awkwardly. That should have been the first red flag.
Two months after meeting Nichols, Blackledge trudged through the marshes at Cecil Webb, a wildlife preserve east of I-75 near Punta Gorda. Spotting an alligator nest, Blackledge and his companion, a hunter named Tommy Beasley, peeled back a thick layer of sticks and swamp grass to peek inside. It was empty.
The two men uncovered a second nest and a third — all empty. Opening alligator nests was a game of roulette: Under state regulations, harvesters can open only half the nests they find, and empty ones count toward the total. Because each nest averages 35 eggs, opening three losers effectively meant they'd lost out on more than 100 eggs at 50 bucks a pop.
The men had been enlisted to find nests by Beasley's boss, Robert Albritton, who'd won a bid to collect eggs from the preserve. When they told him they'd struck out, Albritton instructed the pair to backtrack and cover up the nests as if they hadn't been opened. It was a decision that would later cost them big. Hiding in plain sight, Blackledge was taking mental notes as they repeatedly broke the rules and then covered their tracks.
Undercover wildlife operations are hardly new in Florida. FWC and its predecessor, the Florida Game and Fish Commission, have used secret agents for decades, assigning them to troll Lake Okeechobee bars for moonshiners and illegal alligator hunters in the '80s and party with possum poachers in the '90s. Occasionally, the state has even used fake companies to set the stage. In 2009, FWC set up a fictitious business called One Tropical Way to reel in shrimpers and fishermen selling protected marine life near Tampa.
Sensing some bad business in the alligator industry, the agency leased an 11-acre farm and sent Blackledge and his partner, "Justin Rooks," undercover in 2015. Located in the dead center of Southwest Florida, long the hub of the state's gator industry, there couldn't have been a better spot for the fake farm than Arcadia.
As the seat of DeSoto County, the inland city of 8,000 people skews mostly white and has had a hard time shaking its racist Deep South past. In recent years, a large oak tree formerly used for lynchings has been rebranded from the "Hanging Tree" to the "Tree of Knowledge." Beyond the county's wealthy cattle ranchers and citrus farmers, about 30 percent of residents live under the poverty line. The area is so rural that Arcadia got a Publix only last year.
Because much of the land is still undeveloped, the region is also rife with alligators, both wild and captive. Of the state's 75 or so gator farms, more than a third call Southwest Florida home.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, Blackledge and Rooks befriended many of the region's hunters and trappers, who were unaware that Sunshine Alligator Farm was wired with a surveillance system that covertly recorded video and audio. In reality, nearly every interaction they had with the officers was being documented to use against them.
The nine defendants stumbled onto Blackledge's radar in a few different ways. Evors and his three friends, 23-year-old Jacob Bustin-Pitts and 22-year-old Chris Briscall and Isaiah Romano, accidentally threw themselves into the investigation when they contacted the state to learn more about how to sell alligators.
The four worked for Briscall's rodeo company, but between weekend gigs, things got pretty slow. On Briscall's downtime, his hobby was shooting alligators on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation, which he was legally allowed to do as a member of the Seminole Tribe. Evors got to thinking: They all loved to fish and hunt — why not turn a profit on the gators?
"I was like, 'Man, why aren't we selling these things?'" Evors says. "There's people that buy them for leather, for meat. Why don't we call some people and see about how to go about it?"
So last fall, Briscall contacted FWC about permits. A few weeks later, he got a call from Sunshine, a new alligator farm that said it had gotten his number from the state. Soon he and his three friends were making arrangements to round up and transport a truckload of alligators to the farm.
Then there was Nichols, the hunting guide up the road. He'd been approached by Blackledge in May 2016 with an offer to buy gators, but when Nichols arrived at the farm, Blackledge couldn't answer even a simple question about the farm's male-to-female ratio.
"He didn't know. He didn't remember," Nichols recalls. "Nothing was right with this guy."
Before leaving, Nichols asked Blackledge if he was interested in assisting with an upcoming alligator hunt for a client willing to pay $2,000. Naturally, Blackledge was all too happy to tag along. The morning of the May 6, 2016, hunt, the two men wrangled an eight-foot-nine-inch gator from Nichols' small farm and set it out for the client to "find."
Hooking Albritton proved to be the undercover officer's toughest challenge. After meeting him in June 2015, Blackledge worked nearly a year to kindle a relationship with the soft-spoken Arcadian who'd been trapping alligators since 2012. After 11 months of chitchat at industry meetings, the cop finally scored big when Albritton approached him with a business proposal in May 2016. When he asked if he could pay to use Sunshine Alligator Farm to store his gators and incubate their eggs, Blackledge quickly accepted.
As the undercover officers gained the men's trust, Blackledge began assembling a detailed dossier on all of their misdeeds. After visiting Nichols' farm to snag the nearly nine-foot gator, for example, Blackledge pulled state records and found that none of the reptiles in Nichols' pond had been legally transferred.
Another time, Blackledge was at the fake farm when Nichols stopped by with two hunters from Ohio to clean and package a 200-pound hog and a six-foot-three alligator. As the hunters posed for a photo, Nichols positioned a tag on the alligator to make it look official and then pocketed the tag to use again. On August 23, the officers say, Nichols even shot a protected white ibis and threw it on the grill during a lunchtime cookout.
The cops also discovered some irregularities in Albritton's bookkeeping. A number of times, Blackledge says he caught Albritton taking more eggs than he reported to the state. After finding the empty nests at the preserve, for instance, Albritton admitted to illegally snagging 40 eggs from another nest after the team's paid wildlife biologist, David Nellis, had already left for the day. Under his contract, Albritton was supposed to pay the state $45.01 per egg, but when Blackledge checked the paperwork, the extra eggs were missing from the day's inventory.
The officers also say Albritton and his people repeatedly disregarded the rule about disturbing only half of the alligator nests they found. And they often witnessed the team collecting eggs while unsupervised by a biologist. Even when Nellis was there, the FWC cops say, he failed to take notes and even looked the other way when Albritton and the others broke state rules. (Through his wife, Albritton declined to comment for this story.)
The four young guys from LaBelle found themselves in an even stranger legal situation. Although Seminole and Miccosukee tribe members had free rein to hunt on their reservations and kill wild game for food, profiting from those catches is banned by law. Yet Briscall and his three friends agreed to meet the undercover officers at the farm to illegally sell a truckload of alligators caught on the reservation, the investigators say.
After that first sale, the group invited Blackledge out to the reservation to scout alligator nests. On December 6, 2016, the officer met up with Briscall, Evors, and Romano and rode out to Big Cypress, where they spent sunup to sundown looking for nests and wrangling alligators from canal banks. At the end of the day, Blackledge wrote a check for $350 and drove back to the farm with three gators in the back of his truck.
His taillights in the distance would be the last they'd ever see of him.
Five months after that day in Big Cypress with Blackledge, Evors' sister-in-law jostled him awake from a deep sleep in the guest bedroom of her Cape Coral home.
"Hey," she whispered, "there's a bunch of cops at the door."
It was just after 6 a.m. May 24, 2017. Evors had been up all night hunting — and he was pretty sure he knew what the officers wanted. In a daze, he padded to the front door and let the officers handcuff him. Then he told them to check the garage.
While neighbors in the Southwest Florida suburb poured their morning coffee and carted their kids to school, the FWC officers found 11 live alligators awaiting their fate inside the two-car garage. They would charge Evors with illegally catching each of them.
As the young gator hunter was detained and hauled off to jail, more than 60 agents swept homes in three Florida counties and arrested eight other defendants. FWC and the Florida Attorney General's Office announced the operation in a joint news conference, warning they weren't done making arrests. By the time the dust settled, the case marked arguably the largest sting ever in the gator hunting industry.
"I think part of the message here is we're done with it," said Cox, the statewide prosecutor. "These officers have made it clear that they're not gonna put up with it anymore, and we're certainly gonna back them up 100 percent and take these to court and prosecute 'em as hard as we can."
The operation is one of the only times in FWC history that the agency has arrested a group under racketeering laws, which are more commonly associated with mob rings. Cox told reporters the charges were meant to send a message to poachers that "we're gonna come at you hard."
In a 54-page affidavit, the state outlined its case against the men. Under Florida law, alligator harvesters can pay landowners to collect gator eggs from their properties to resell on the open market. But while Albritton had collection permits for several properties, investigators say he frequently pocketed eggs without telling landowners how many he'd scooped up. Over the summer of 2016, Albritton and his team stole an estimated 1,640 eggs from the Cecil Webb wildlife preserve and at least 244 from private properties, at a total loss of more than $77,000 to the state and $14,000 to private property owners, the undercover officers say.
According to investigators, Albritton then used the Seminole Tribe of Florida to launder his illegally taken eggs by claiming they'd been purchased from the tribe. But when FWC officers subpoenaed business records, they learned that Albritton had made numerous illegal buys from a tribe member buddy who was paid more than $75,000 to collect hundreds of alligator eggs.
The investigation ultimately led officers to the bayous of Louisiana, where Albritton was selling the gator hatchlings he'd incubated at FWC's farm. Payroll records showed that Albritton and his ragtag crew of Nellis, Beasley, and Pickle were working with Golden Ranch Farms, a Louisiana operation owned by Arlen "Benny" Cenac Jr., a multimillionaire towing magnate with past convictions for illegal campaign payments and a fatal hit-and-run, who has also faced allegations of aggravated child rape. FWC is still investigating whether Cenac or his company was aware of or participated in the illegal alligator activity. (Cenac didn't respond to messages from New Times about this case.)
Although the charges against the other five defendants are less serious, prosecutors argue their crimes still merit considerable punishment. Nichols is accused of unlawful possession of alligators and unlawful killing of a white ibis, while Evors, Briscall, Romano, and Bustin-Pitts each faces charges of unlawful possession of alligators and conspiracy to commit dealing in stolen property. Ultimately, investigators say those illegal captures and sales hurt legitimate alligator farms by creating unfair competition.
"It's an industry that's thriving, it's an industry worth an awful lot of money, and it's an industry that's worth enforcement," Cox says.
In fact, while the operation was ongoing, the market was so hot that some businesses even fell victim to burglaries. In 2015, crooks broke into Gatorama, a 60-year-old alligator farm and tourist attraction just west of Lake Okeechobee, and made off with 1,100 alligator eggs worth $66,000. Owner Allen Register says eggs were also pilfered from about 150 of the 600 or so alligator nests he was permitted to collect from around the lake that year.
"These eggs are the only resource that most of the farmers have," Register says. "When they go in and they steal those eggs, they cost us money."
With an air of paranoia, Evors slinks into a gas-station Wendy's in North Fort Myers four weeks after his arrest. Since the case hit the news, he's tried to lie low, refusing to give out his cell phone number and even chopping off the swoopy blond hair in his mug shot.
"I totally had to cut it," he says. "When I walk anywhere, it's like, 'You're that dude from the news that killed all them fucking alligators.'"
For Evors, a first-time offender, the prospect of going to prison over alligators would be laughable if it weren't so serious.
"I've never been arrested a day in my life," he says. "I don't feel like I did anything wrong, and I don't feel like I deserve prison."
Since late May, the nine defendants have bonded out and are awaiting trial, where defense lawyers are all but certain to raise questions about the integrity of the undercover operation. Evors believes he and the others will ultimately be cleared, saying officers acted improperly.
"We didn't go out of our way to do anything illegal. They completely hit us up, propositioning us with this, this, and this," he says. "They literally went out of their way to commit a crime."
Born in Chokoloskee, Evors says FWC has been after him since he was 16, when he was stopped by officers investigating his older brothers in an unrelated case.
"That's how I got on their radar, but they didn't catch us doing anything," he says. "So forever when I get stopped by FWC, they question me and harass me."
He points out it was FWC that initiated contact with him and his friends, not the other way around. Evors says the undercover cops claimed they wanted to work together in an aboveboard way and took him and his buddies on a tour of the farm to put them at ease.
"They contacted us and solicited us and told us we were covered under their licenses because they were a company and reassured us that everything was legal," Evors says.
At one point, the guys at Sunshine even dangled $51,000 in front of him and his friends to collect alligator eggs, a deal that ultimately never materialized, he says. And when the group went out to the reservation in December to check out the egg habitat and catch live gators, Blackledge fully participated.
"He completely did everything with us," Evors says. "Like, this guy stood over my shoulder with my gun making sure alligators didn't eat me while we're catching them for him. This guy held the rope, pulled alligators in with us, and he was an undercover officer."
He's most upset that some of the alligators he delivered ended up being euthanized. When they first met, Evors says, the undercover officers assured him their farm was a breeding facility where "every alligator was going to be alive, live a long, happy, prosperous life." But when the state intercepted the alligators he'd planned to deliver to Sunshine the morning of his arrest, he learned through the grapevine that seven of the 11 in his garage were killed by FWC's trapper.
"I think it's really shitty how they killed seven of 'em while talking about conservation this, conservation that," he says. "What are you conserving?"
Like Evors, Nichols argues his case was seriously flawed. To start, he claims one of the officers drank alcohol on several occasions during the investigation. "The undercover game warden stayed drunk the whole time," Nichols says. "There's so much they left out."
As for the infamously grilled white ibis, Nichols says that the bird was already injured and that one of the officers actually egged him on to shoot it.
"He goes, 'Aw, man, you ever eat one of those? Heard it's good eatin','" Nichols recalls. He says the officer went on and on about shooting the bird until Nichols finally offered up his .22 Hornet rifle.
"He kept saying, 'I'm not a good shot.' I was like, fine, I'll shoot the damn thing — it's gonna die anyway," Nichols says. (FWC tells New Times it disputes his version of events.)
He also questions why FWC would sell him what was left of Sunshine Alligator Farm when they closed down late last year, given the fact that he was still under investigation for alleged wildlife violations. "I bought them out, took their gators," he says. "It was all legally done."
Despite those criticisms, FWC defends its investigation. The agency says its officers are trained to use their best judgment and to handle situations safely and professionally. Internal policies allow undercover agents to drink alcohol in moderation, for instance, if it eases social interactions with certain subjects. And officials bristle at the idea of entrapment. "There is no entrapment during the investigation, and in all circumstances, our undercover officers have [documented] predisposition, which is a prior willingness of a suspect to commit a certain crime," the agency says in a statement.
Overall, investigators argue the long, expensive operation was worth it. The case will have an international impact, they say, by protecting the integrity of Florida's alligator exports. If nothing else, it sends a strong message to illicit operators to get in line.
"I hope it's very clear to anybody out there who is poaching alligators, who is poaching eggs: It's not gonna be worth it," Cox says.
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Because there's no governing body or professional organization for Florida's alligator industry, Register, the alligator farmer who was robbed, says farmers and trappers must start policing themselves.
"The problem is FWC law enforcement has not had the manpower to cover the vast area they have to cover," he says. "It's going to be a matter of us calling other people out. If you know somebody is buying something illegal, they need to be called on the carpet."
While Evors has caught flak from strangers, Nichols says his hometown has supported him through the arrest and the uphill legal process to clear his name. As he walked into a Chili's for lunch on a recent weekday, a woman embraced him and wished him well.
"Everybody has gotten support," he says. "If there's 100 people out there in the community, I guarantee 90 of them are gonna say this is bullshit."