Six people are in custody and a seventh is wanted by authorities after California Fish and Wildlife game wardens busted a suspected poaching ring that spanned several years and involved the cooperation of a local food market .
They call themselves the E-Bike Crew, a group of six men believed to be responsible for dozens of illegal killings of local wildlife.
On Monday, Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko announced that 21 charges had been brought against the men, including allegations of forgery, conspiracy, receiving possession, animal cruelty and possession of a bear. not labeled.
The investigation into the illegal poaching activities lasted more than a year.
The men involved, identified in public records as Martin M. Bravo, Martin Bravo Sr., Jaime Mendoza Avila, Walfre Lopez y Lopez, Gilberto Lopez Hernandez and Cristian Lopez Perez, are accused of working in concert to fraudulently obtain labels from California hunts, licenses and other rights.
The group is said to have worked with the cooperation of Juventino Reyes Guerrero, the operator of a fish and wildlife licensing office located in the Lizette market in Piru.
From June 2019 to October 2021, the men allegedly forged and reprinted hunting tags to allow them to circumvent California hunting regulations and harvest more animals than the law allows. According to court documents, their motivation was profit, personal gain and, simply put, entertainment.
California has restrictions on the number of animals that can be taken throughout the year. The restrictions exist to protect California wildlife and prevent overhunting, which can have devastating results for the local ecosystem.
For example, California law prohibits the issuance of more than two deer hunting tags per year.
When printing legal labels for the band, Reyes Guerrero reportedly regularly reprinted tickets, accusing him of poor print quality. In fact, according to game wardens, Guerrero was giving the men involved in the poaching group extra tags.
Each reprinted ticket is tracked through the state’s automated licensing data system. During the time the alleged crimes took place, no licensed dealer in the state of California had more reprinted tickets than Lizette’s Market, authorities said.
A ranger began noticing the scheme after encountering the group while patrolling the Los Padres National Forest in northern Ventura County. The men were riding electric bicycles with their guns on them. One of the men received a warning for driving with a live ammunition in the chamber of his gun.
One of the men, whose documents identify himself as Mendoza Avila, spontaneously told the manager that he was part of the “Oxnard e-bike team”.
They cycled through Ventura County and parts of Santa Barbara County, hunting animals, then using their e-bikes and trailers to haul them from where they fell.
Over the next year, this manager would receive several complaints and tips alleging that the same e-bike crew was responsible for several unlawful killings, some of which had taken place at local wildlife sanctuaries and on a restricted oil field.
On one occasion, a fish and wildlife officer contacted several members of the group and found that some of their tags were only partially filled out. State law requires that these tags be completely filled out to prevent the same tag from being used for multiple victims. It was just one of several examples of the group coyly playing with their hunting tags, authorities said.
The group was coordinated, wore camouflage and communicated by radio.
But the suspected poachers weren’t coordinated enough to avoid detection. They have been spotted on camera several times illegally hunting in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, which is closed to the public because it is a nesting ground for the endangered California condor.
Investigators were able to get a clear picture of all the men involved in the poaching activity and later identified the source of their hunting tags as Lizette’s market.
Additional labels were also printed and reprinted at a Walmart in Oxnard.
A total of 64 tags were reprinted and more than 120 tags were never reported.
Reyes Guerrero, who operates Lizette’s market, is said to have printed and reprinted the labels under his daughter-in-law’s name. When contacted, the daughter-in-law told investigators she had no idea about the operation.
It was later discovered that the poaching group and their associates accounted for 100% of all reprints at Lizette Market, Fish and Wildlife said.
On December 8, 2021, search warrants were issued at locations in Ventura County that were associated with members of the E-Bike Crew.
During the search, authorities recovered dozens of trophies, antlers and animal skulls believed to have been illegally harvested. Among them was a puma skull, which Martin M. Bravo allegedly tried to pass off as a bobcat skull. Cougar hunting is strictly prohibited in California.
At Bravo, they also recovered sharp metal weapons that can be attached to chickens’ feet, often associated with cockfighting, another illegal activity in California.
Bravo also allegedly admitted to killing a bear that was being taxidermized. The bear has never been reported.
The freezers that were searched were also found to be filled with various animal meats, including deer and bear, most of which were believed to have been obtained illegally.
The Lizette market was also among the places excavated. Physical and electronic evidence of the reprint program was obtained during that search, officials said.
During interviews with the accused e-bike crew members, many participants admitted to killing more animals than allowed by law, improperly using hunting tags, and discussing how to get reprinted labels. Several of them have also admitted to trading and bartering illegally obtained animal parts and meat.
The owners of Lizette’s Market denied knowingly participating in the scheme, according to court documents.
Examination of text messages and WhatsApp conversations also shed light on the process and revealed that many people involved in the scheme were openly discussing the illegal activity with each other.
In the summary findings of the investigation, fish and wildlife officials allege that the group was responsible for an undetermined number of illegal killings over the years, including dozens of deer and several bears, and that he simply did not report the murders or used fraudulent labels. in an attempt to cover their tracks.
“With the reprint program enacted, the Wildlife Trafficking Organization (WTO) has been authorized to travel into the surrounding wilderness areas of and around Ventura County and provided the means to illegally kill any game at any time. moment with a save in place in the event. the group was confronted by law enforcement. The execution of this program has resulted in a significant loss of wildlife resources in the county, the denial of legal hunting opportunities for law-abiding citizens, and the illegal marketing of native wildlife for personal or profit gain,” the warrant states. stop.
Martin M. Bravo and his father, Martin Bravo Sr., Jaime Mendoza Avila, Gilberto Lopez Hernandez, Cristian Lopez Perez and Juventino Reyes Guerrero were arraigned Monday and remain in custody on bond set at $200,000. Walfre Lopez y Lopez has not yet been located and has an active arrest warrant.
The men are due back in court Wednesday in Ventura County Superior Court.
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