Although the White House announced two weeks ago that President Obama had pardoned 61-year-old Bobby Gerald Wilson for his 1985 conviction in the illegal sale of alligator hides, the former poacher won't celebrate until he has the document in hand.
"I ain't got it yet," Wilson said when reached at his home in Summerton, S.C., this week. "That's all talk, and until something comes up for real ... I ain't saying a word."
Wilson's pardon was one of eight Obama approved last month. Of the 17 pardons granted by Obama since he took office, it is the first related to a conviction for a wildlife crime.
The case stemmed from a sting operation conducted by Fish and Wildlife Service agents that targeted the then 34-year-old Wilson, who was shooting alligators on the grounds of the Civil War-era plantation he managed in Hardeesville, S.C., just across the Savannah River from Georgia. Under the Endangered Species Act, hunting alligators was illegal in South Carolina through the late 1980s. Today, alligator hunting is allowed in the state but strictly controlled.
According to FWS files on the case, Wilson killed the alligators in the coastal area of South Carolina near the Fife plantation and then sold their hides to a retired farmer in Metter, Ga. But their business came apart when Wilson's contact in Georgia sold the hides to undercover FWS agents who were onto the scheme.
According to a report in the Savannah Morning News just days after the two men's arrest in June 1985, the government presented tape recordings and other evidence to a federal judge showing that Wilson had sold the agents 134 feet of alligator hides in May 1984 and another 150 feet of hides days before his arrest. He was paid $5 a foot for the hides, while the Georgia man got $1 a foot for arranging the deal.
Both Wilson and his Georgia contact were eventually found guilty of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the possession, transport and sale of species taken in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Wilson eventually received a three-and-a-half-month prison sentence along with five years of probation.
Two decades later, Wilson filed his pardon application with the Department of Justice pardon attorney on Oct. 1, 2007.
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers on the day the pardon was announced, Wilson said he got into the poaching business to try to make a little extra cash to pay the medical bills of his sick children.
"I was making good money as the plantation manager, but I had to have more money because a couple of my kids stayed sick all the time over and over," he told the news service. "It got us to where we couldn't even buy a loaf of bread."
This week, both Wilson and a DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on the substance of his pardon application. But based on the history of presidential pardons, it is fair to say his odds were never great.
Besides Wilson, of the 675 pardons granted in the past 22 years, just six were for convictions related to wildlife crimes. None of those was granted under former President George H.W. Bush. Former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush each granted three.
According to FWS, Clinton pardoned an Illinois woman convicted in 1995 on wildlife charges related to the unlawful sale of items made from eagle feathers. He also pardoned two Texas men convicted in 1983 and 1989 for violating the Lacey Act. The former had also violated the Airborne Hunting Act.
George W. Bush pardoned a Kansas man convicted in 1998 for conspiracy to violate state and federal wildlife laws and two Colorado men convicted in 1994 for selling migratory bird parts in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Obama's pardon of Wilson is likely the first ever for a reformed alligator poacher. But there are those who disagree with the move, including Mark McHugh, the president and CEO of Gatorland, a Florida theme park and education center that styles itself the "Alligator Capital of the World."
McHugh, whose park is home to roughly 1,000 alligators and crocodiles, said Wilson deserved his punishment and should not have his record wiped clean.
Noting that his family has run Gatorland for more than 60 years, McHugh said he has a special dislike for "those that are out there poaching and destroying our resources, and we consider these animals resources; they are for the enjoyment of generations to come."
Despite some high-profile cases -- such as a Florida traffic stop last fall that led to the discovery of 55 dead and live alligators -- McHugh said alligator poaching is on the decline. Legal alligator farming operations, such as the one that Gatorland ran until it switched over to a full conservation program in the late 1990s, have cut into poaching operations.
Besides, he said, "right now, the alligator hide market is so depressed that there's no money in poaching and selling them anyway."
These days, McHugh estimated that an alligator hide will sell on the legal market for somewhere around $120 to $150.
Not that that matters anymore to Wilson, who said he is just waiting to hear from the White House.
DOJ spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said this week that after the president signs a warrant granting a pardon to an applicant, the recipient receives an individual warrant of pardon signed by the pardon attorney at the direction of the president. She declined to say how long that process takes.
But after two decades, Wilson said he is fine waiting a little longer for the paperwork to come through.
"I ain't in no hurry," he said.
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