Chronicle Investigation: Forest Service, Campground Vendor Say WDFW Didn’t Share Information That Alleged Poaching by Hosts
Note: This was originally published in November 2017.
On July 11, 2016, a U.S. Forest Service employee was contacted by a concerned citizen with a tip about an ongoing poaching operation occurring within the sprawling confines of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The tipster said that the campground host at Takhlakh Lake, Eddy Dills, was using his position deep within the forest to conduct illegal hunts for bears using dogs with the help of a network of fellow poachers. The tip also indicated that the group had killed “up to 200 grouse so far.”
Despite that detailed information, which made its way to the desks of top Gifford Pinchot National Forest officials, Dills was not terminated or even questioned about the allegations, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle through a public records request and subsequent interviews.
His ultimate dismissal did not come for another 13 months, and for reasons entirely unrelated to the alleged poaching activity. In the interim, it is alleged that Dills used his position’s implied authority, a Hoodoo Recreation company truck, special access privileges and an atmosphere of virtually non-existent supervision to conduct or coordinate an unknown number of additional poaching expeditions.
Eddy Dills, of Longview, is currently facing 37 charges in Skamania County, where the bulk of the poaching is believed to have occurred. According to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife investigation, animals poached in the operation included bears, bobcats, deer, elk and other game, often with the illegal aid of dogs. Many of the animals are believed to have been simply shot and left behind to rot, with large bone piles turning up again and again during a lengthy investigation by the WDFW.
That investigation has also convinced authorities that the Dills family used their position as remote campground hosts on Forest Service land to operate one of the most egregious poaching rings state law enforcement officials say they’ve ever seen.
Among the accused is at least one of Dills’ children, Joseph Dills, who was previously convicted of poaching crimes in connection with the so-called “Kill ‘Em All Boyz.” Joseph Dills was recommended for 64 charges by the WDFW, including four for first-degree unlawful big game hunting with the illegal use of dogs. He previously pleaded guilty in Wahkiakum County District Court in 2008 to second-degree unlawful hunting of big game and second-degree criminal trespassing, which could lead to an inflated sentence if he is found guilty again.
Other Cowlitz and Lewis County residents caught up in the poaching ring include Erik Martin, William Haynes, Bryan Tretiak, Kyle Manley, Aubri McKenna and a 17-year old female relative of the Dills. All told, the poachers are suspected of killing more than 100 animals in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon between 2015 and 2017. That group of accused poachers is currently facing a combination of more than 200 criminal charges, and the WDFW has promised that additional charges will soon be handed out to additional suspects.
As details of the investigation have come to light over the past six months, many people have wondered how such an active, and extensive, poaching ring could operate undetected for so long. As it turns out, people were noticing. It’s just that none of the forest’s official stewards did anything to put a stop to it.
According to Hoodoo Recreation Services, which contracts with the Forest Service in order to provide campground services, Eddy Dills was never an official employee. Instead, according to Hoodoo Recreation General Manager Kaly Harward, Dills’ wife Angela was the hired host. The company insists that Eddy was simply allowed to accompany his wife during her summertime assignments while acting as a surrogate host.
However, the records obtained by The Chronicle through the state Public Records Act show that Angela Dills was only mentioned one time during email communication between the Forest Service and Hoodoo from 2014 to 2017.
Meanwhile, Eddy Dills was mentioned regularly in emails between officials from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Hoodoo Recreation. One email sent from Doug Butler of Hoodoo Recreation to Deborah Terrion of the U.S. Forest Service on June 12, 2016, read, “I will probably be the contact person for Takhlakh this year with the road situation we will be supporting Eddie, the Takhlakh host, from the SGP (South Gifford Pinchot).”
Additionally, emails show that Eddy Dills was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of various U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, including preseason preparations at Takhlakh Lake Campground in June 2016. A checklist of those various tasks was signed exclusively by Eddy Dills on June 3, 2016, and returned to U.S. Forest Service officials. One week later, a recreation technician for the Forest Service stopped by the Takhlakh Lake and Olallie campgrounds and found both of them to be in “unsatisfactory condition,” with the majority of the supposedly completed tasks left altogether untouched. Among the technician’s observations were toilet paper rolls that had been chewed through by mice, broken doors and a broken toilet seat.
Despite that incident, which Jack Thorne, public services assistant for the U.S. Forest Service, called a breach of trust, Hoodoo Recreation continued to view the Dills as valuable remote employees.
According to Harward, the general manager for the company, the Dills were first hired as campground hosts late in the summer season of 2015. In an internal email, the Forest Service noted that the couple was first stationed at Iron Creek Campground south of Randle near the Cispus Learning Center before being moved to Takhlakh Lake Campground in advance of the 2016 summer season. They were then moved again to Bumping Lake Campground in the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest northeast of Packwood for the 2017 summer season.
Evidence gathered from the suspects, cellphones indicates that their organized poaching efforts date back to at least 2015. The first poaching incident listed in WDFW case records is alleged to have occurred near Randle on Aug. 29, 2015, right around the time the Dills were first hired on with Hoodoo Recreation. In that inaugural incident Bryan Tretiak, of Morton, is accused of shooting a bear out of a tree surrounded by baying hound dogs. Eddy Dills, Joseph Dills, William Haynes and Erik Martin are all alleged to have been present for the kill as well. Additional cellphone evidence indicates that another bear was shot out of a tree by the group later that same day. Charges allege, and video evidence appears to show, that the following day a 15-year old relative of the Dills was brought along so that she could poach her very own bear with the help of the family dogs and associated cohorts.
A text message sent from Joseph Dills to William Haynes on March 31, 2016, reveals just how eager the accused poachers were to get back to using U.S. Forest Service campgrounds as their personal poaching headquarters. In that exchange, Dills wrote, “My dad is gonna do that camp hosting again this year. He’ll be (at) Horseshoe or Takalak (sic). You ready for that again? All that death and caos? (sic)”
A text reply from Haynes’ cellphone replied in the affirmative, reading, “Oh f*** yeah. My dad said he wants to bring his trailer up there too this year.”
On July 8, 2016, Jack Thorne of the USFS drove into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in order to check the condition of Forest Road 2329. While in the area, he stopped by the Takhlakh Campground for a drive-through inspection. As soon as Thorne arrived, he observed two youths associated with the Dills riding the campground four-wheeler erratically and also saw a sign that read, “Smile, you’re on candid camera.”
Thorne said he inquired with Eddy Dills to see if there was really a camera set up on the premises, and Dills denied that there was. Dills also insisted that the youths were using the four-wheeler for work purposes. Before Thorne could leave the campground, he said he came under verbal attack by the Dills family for five to 10 minutes as they assailed him with a litany of grievances, including protests over complaints about their performance.
That campground encounter was not the first to leave Thorne with a bad impression.
In an internal email to another U.S. Forest Service employee on June 14, 2016, Thorne wrote, “In my opinion, there are one or more Hoodoo employees who are acting in ways that are significantly detrimental to their employer, the (Forest Service), and our working relationship. Also, it seems clear that there is insufficient local oversight and supervision in the Hoodoo organization to identify and correct these problems. Personally, I think Eddie (Dills) is at least one large part of the problem ...”
Less than a week after that confrontation, Thorne was traveling on Forest Road 2160 toward Walupt Lake when he encountered two individuals he referred to in an email as “the campground hosts.”
Thorne noted that he and the hosts spoke about ongoing illegal access issues on Forest Road 2801. According to Thorne, the female occupant stated that the last time she was on Forest Road 2801, she had seen a bear that appeared to have been shot in the leg. In an email detailing the interaction, Thorne noted that Hoodoo Recreation staff have keys and access privileges in that part of the forest that the general public does not.
The previous day, July 11, 2016, is when Thorne says he first became aware of the bear and grouse poaching allegations near Takhlakh Lake, thanks to a tipster. Thorne forwarded those poaching allegations to Gar Abbas, district ranger of the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District, WDFW officer James Simpson and Gene Seiber, a detective with the Lewis County Sheriff's Office based in East Lewis County. Seiber in turn forwarded the information to officials in Skamania County.
In a follow-up email from Thorne to Seiber, he noted, “FYI, we are not initiating further administrative action related to this host (related to permit performance) in order to allow investigation to occur as effectively as possible.”
Another email dated July 11, 2016, sent by Thorne to Harward, at Hoodoo, appears to be the only documented correspondence between the U.S. Forest Service and Hoodoo Recreation regarding the poaching allegations and the ongoing investigation into the Dills and their associates.
That email read, in part, “Just for the record, as of this morning, there are additional allegations with regard to the dog and bear hunting situation. But I need to follow up and get it from 3rd hand info to 2nd or 1st hand info. I will pass on more info when I have something more substantial.”
While Thorne told The Chronicle that the tip from the concerned citizen was the first time he had heard of the poaching allegations, his phrasing of “additional allegations” in his email to Harward indicates otherwise.
Officials from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including Abbas and public relations spokeswoman Sue Ripp, declined to clarify when the U.S. Forest Service first became aware of the poaching allegations and referred all questions related to the ongoing poaching investigation to law enforcement during an interview with The Chronicle.
For his part, Harward says he wishes that Hoodoo Recreation could have been kept in the loop about the poaching allegations as they developed. Harward claims that Thorne and the U.S. Forest Service failed to get back to him as promised with additional details about the alleged poaching by the Dills. As a result, Harward says he lacked the credible evidence required to terminate the Dills’ employment with Hoodoo Recreation on U.S. Forest Service lands.
“I can’t make a decision based on somebody owning a certain type of dog or wearing a certain type of clothes. As an employer, that doesn’t work,” reasoned Harward.
Provided with ample evidence, Harward says the company would never have hesitated to remove a problem employee.
“Even if they were perfect hosts, which I don’t think they were, we would have rather had no hosts than somebody that was under investigation for poaching or damaging the land or the wildlife on the land. We take that really seriously as a partner with the Forest Service. Our job is to follow the mission of Gifford Pinchot, the namesake of the forest we are in, and do the most good for the most people,” said Harward.
Harward blames the WDFW for allowing Hoodoo to employ a suspected poacher under active investigation and claims he didn’t find out about any pending charges against the Dills family until he read about it in The Chronicle in September of this year.
“When I heard from somewhere that they had been under investigation for two years, that was really disconcerting to me because it seemed like they almost wanted them employed by us, or someone like us, in remote parts of the forest in order to see how they would react to it,” speculated Harward.
He noted that the Dills were relieved of their position at Takhlakh Lake Campground late in the summer of 2016 due to performance and conflict issues, but they were then reassigned to Bumping Lake Campground for the summer of 2017.
“It doesn’t seem like the Forest Service's attitude toward that allegation was very strong,” said Harward, who noted that the U.S. Forest Service only recommended moving the Dills family away from Takhlakh Lake due to “attitude issues.”
“We thought that was the absolute worst of it,” said Harward, in reference to the documented dereliction of duty and verbal assault of U.S. Forest Service employees. “Our reason for moving them on was that they are oil and water with this particular forest person … We were trying to get Eddy and Angie to play nice together.”
However, those same problems followed the Dills’ this year to Bumping Lake, and they were fired in August after a number of additional spats with Forest Service employees. Harward noted that the sheriff had to be called after at least one confrontation between Dills and a forest Service employee.
Capt. Jeff Wickersham, of the WDFW police, said that protocol prevented his department from doing much more to alert either the U.S. Forest Service or Hoodoo Recreation to the suspected poaching activities.
“The Forest Service, when we talked about this, asked ‘Well, why didn’t you tell us? We would’ve handled that.’ We’re not going to go out and tell the Forest Service you should terminate him. It’s kind of a due process thing,” reasoned Wickersham. “There’s kind of been some angst about why didn’t we let more people know what’s going on … It’s complicated. We want to complete what we’re doing, but we don’t want to jump the gun.”
For their part, the Forest Service presented the same reasoning, arguing that allegations of illegal activity fall outside of their jurisdiction. “It’s really not our role, so to speak, to suggest or require that somebody be moved or terminated,” said Thorne.
He argued that the Forest Service fulfilled its duty by reporting the allegations to law enforcement and getting out of the way.
In an internal email dated Sept. 8, 2017, Thorne wrote, “This case, and others in past years associated with concession operator field staff personnel, indicates that we really should be requiring some minimal level of background checks on all personnel who are permitted to represent the Forest Service in providing recreation services to the public. Although they are not our employees, they may be the only ‘authority’ that a camper encounters and are often seen by the public as the ‘face of the Forest Service.’”
Harward explained that because Angela Dills was hired as the official employee of Hoodoo Recreation, Eddy Dills was never subject to background checks by the U.S. Forest Service. Harward added that due to the fact that Angela Dills was hired late in the season in 2015, he’s not sure if her background was ever checked by Hoodoo either. Harward estimated that about half of all of Hoodoo’s campgrounds are operated in a similar fashion with at least one of the hosts going unscreened.
In a follow-up email on Sept. 12, 2017, Thorne expressed his desire for a change of policy, writing, “We need to talk seriously about implementing some form of background checks on the employees of permit holders that we place in direct, extended contact with National Forest System visitors (men, women, and children) and our public resources. This is not the first time we have been subjected to this kind of black-eye event … just the most publicized.”
So far though, all parties admit that there has not been any progress made to ensure that a similar situation doesn’t happen in the future. Harward says that hiring practices are on the docket for discussion, but nothing has been finalized yet.
“Our first agenda item before we start hiring people is that very topic. We probably need to figure out what we are able and capable of doing working with our HR manager, what we are allowed to do as far as screening people that are coming along with the hired host,” said Harward.
As for the USFS, Thorne noted that, “We have had some discussions but nothing concrete and no decisions.”
In the end, the case didn’t really accelerate until Oregon State Police officers got involved last November. A camera captured images of two men in a Toyota pickup using a spotlight to hunt on national forest land near The Dalles. Spotlighting is illegal. The officers found a deer carcass, with the head removed, where the truck was seen. On Dec. 3, the same officers saw the Toyota during patrol and pulled over the vehicle. Haynes and Erik Martin confessed to killing two deer and a squirrel, and said they took the heads of the bucks back to Haynes’ father’s home in Washington. The Oregon police reached out to WDFW officers, who in turn followed the men to the home, which was later searched after a warrant was obtained.
A freshly-cut deer head was found in the garage. In the backyard, they found 12 more deer heads, some rotting and filled with maggots.
According to the investigative reports, Martin admitted to having more heads at his house.
A total of 27 buck heads were located by the end of the night.
In the biggest evidentiary coup of the investigation, WDFW officials took the men’s phones and searched them, after obtaining a warrant, and found a trove of photographs, videos, text messages and data that led to the discovery of additional suspects and dozens of kill sites in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Hoodoo Recreation has been a concessionaire with the U.S. Forest Service operating campgrounds in Washington and Oregon since 2010. Their permit to operate in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is set to expire at the end of 2019.
Jury trials for the accused poachers are scheduled to begin in December. On Oct. 12, Eddy Dills and Joseph Dills entered not guilty pleas. Their jury trials are slated to begin on Jan. 8, 2018.