by Dan Egan
Three federal agents
involved in a celebrated tangle with an Idaho rancher were packing
more than pistols when they investigated the case of a shot wolf on
They also had a tape
The tape reveals a dramatically
different picture of the agents from the thug-like characters
lambasted by Idaho lawmakers in the weeks after the incident.
Instead, the agents, who had a search warrant, were mainly calm and
The clash occurred March 8, when
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrived at 74-year-old
Eugene Hussey's ranch near Salmon to look for the bullet that
killed a gray wolf. The animal was one of 15 that the agency had
trapped in Canada last January, then set free in an Idaho
wilderness as part of a controversial federal plan to restore
wolves to their historic range.
confrontation drew national attention after Lemhi County Sheriff
Brett Barsalou assailed the agents in the press, calling their
tactics "heavy-handed and dangerously close to the use of excessive
force." Backing the sheriff, state legislator Rex Furness, one of
Idaho's staunchest conservatives, showed his quick
"We've got to start standing up for our
rights," he said. "We aren't too far away from the West being ruled
by the weapon. And that wouldn't be such a bad law."
The state's congressional delegation also hopped
on the bandwagon, adding the federal visit to a list that included
Waco and Ruby Ridge. They called it another example of an
out-of-control law enforcement agency from Washington,
"When I think of a 74-year-old man being
intimidated by armed federal land management officials, I think of
my dad, and it makes me a little angry," Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R,
said last March.
The flamboyant Rep. Helen
Chenoweth, R, stole the stage a week later when she convened a
hearing in Boise on the confrontation and blasted the federal
agents as interlopers. The pressure grew so intense that Fish and
Wildlife Director Mollie Beattie sent a memo to employees. If an
error was made, she said, it was "in failing to keep open lines of
communication so those who needed to know were kept informed."
Finally, Hussey and Barsalou were called to
Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional subcommittee.
Hussey spent $1,200 of his money and flew in an airplane for the
first time. "I felt I owed it to the Western people," he
As the anti-federal din intensified, the
agents - Tom Riley, Steve Magone and Paul Weyland - bit their lips
and took the criticism silently. Finally, a few months ago, they
spoke out, saying Hussey was the aggressor. But the public had no
way of knowing who to believe - until
A transcript of the taped
confrontation, obtained in September by the Idaho Falls Post
Register, shows Hussey as the aggressor and far from the helpless
old man that Idaho politicians had depicted.
transcript shows he called the agents "f---er" dozens of times,
referred to them as "big federal turds," and tried to pelt the men
with rocks when they arrived on his
"It's real tough to convince some of
the public that everything you said was true, especially when other
individuals were saying it wasn't," Riley said recently. "I think
the transcript ... shows that we acted professionally and tried to
settle him down as much as we could."
who fiercely denies any part in the wolf killing, only heard
excerpts from the tape transcript read to him over the phone Sept.
12. It was the first he heard that the tape existed, and he was
quick to discredit it.
"I think it's bull," he
said. "There's things they're saying there that I know they
didn't." A copy of the tape played to a reporter by U.S. Fish and
Wildlife agent Steve Magone showed no evidence of tampering or
When Riley was told Hussey didn't
believe the tape was the real thing, he broke into laughter. "I
don't think we could fake that (Hussey's) voice," he said. The
agents said they kept their tape a secret in case they needed it to
defend themselves in court. It only became available to the public
after they closed their investigation this summer. They never found
the bullet and still don't know who shot the wolf (see accompanying
The transcript shows a foul-mouthed
Hussey ready to brawl when the agents arrived and presented him
with the warrant.
"Here. Take it. This is your
copy, sir," agent Magone told Hussey as he waded across a stream to
hand Hussey his warrant.
"I don't have to take a
f---in" thing "til he gets here. Only from the goddamn sheriff,"
Hussey replied. "Nobody's doing a f---in" thing "til he gets here."
At that point Hussey was tossing rocks at
"Don't hit me with rocks, Gene," Magone
said calmly. Magone carried the recorder in his coat pocket and on
the tape rocks could be heard hitting the
"I can hit ya on my f---in" property.
Goddamn you," Hussey said. When interviewed about the tape, Hussey
admitted he did throw a rock, but, "I tossed the rock slow-pitch.
I've got arthritis in my arm. I can't toss overhand."
This admission, six months after the incident,
was a first. Hussey told Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Rocky
Barker in March that he never threw any rocks and never showed any
aggression toward the
But the agents weren't
saints that day. The tape shows at times they got rattled as they
waited for Sheriff Barsalou to arrive before they continued their
search. At one point, agent Weyland chided Hussey about the
possibility that his ranch is subsidized by the federal government.
And when Weyland got frustrated with Hussey's refusal to
acknowledge the validity of their search warrant, he teased the
rancher about moving out of the country.
country the United States?" Weyland asked.
"This country is part of the
United States," Weyland said.
"They - however you
want to look at it," Hussey said.
"This - isn't
the United States?" Weyland continued.
"This is in the United States."
"I haven't surveyed it."
live in the United States. You know, if you don't like this, why
don't you move to Russia?"
"Why don't you move your butt to Russia?"
"Hey, it's beginning to feel like we're there
with these goddamn guys."
Hussey said it was
Weyland's words that riled him. "The only guy I had problems with
was (Weyland). He was the lipper," he said. "When a guy calls me a
subsidized farmer, I'm abused verbally."
Hussey denies that Weyland ever told him to move to Russia. "He
told me that I should go to another country, not that I should go
to Russia," he said. "I don't think there's anything to this tape
... there's so much there that I don't recognize."
Riley said Weyland said those things to distract
Hussey from attacking Magone, who was standing nearest to the
rancher. Though it isn't revealed on the tape, Riley said it looked
like Hussey was about to strike Magone several
"Paul knew this was being taped," Magone
said Tuesday. "He was trying to distract Hussey from swinging at
But the transcript shows the exchange was
at times nearly cordial.
At some points the men
laughed together and rambled in an almost-friendly manner about
constitutional law and federal policy while they waited for the
sheriff. Magone said they tried everything they could think of to
calm Hussey during the waiting period. He acknowledged that Hussey
fought five major battles in World War II and said, "I know and
respect you for that."
He talked about the
possibility of going out to dinner with
"It's still one of the weirdest things I've
ever run into," Magone said earlier this month. "It seemed like no
matter what we did, nothing would satisfy him. He was just mad. He
was mad before we got there."
Gayle Lutz, a
notary public who transcribed the tape, said she couldn't help but
chuckle as she typed the exchange. "The whole thing was bizarre,"
she said. "You should have heard the tape; it was even funnier."
Finally, Sheriff Barsalou arrived and tempers
flared again. But Magone said he turned his tape player off because
he thought the sheriff would restore some sanity to the situation.
Things only got hotter, and Barsalou and Magone nearly got into a
fist fight, according to accounts from all sides. Magone, Riley and
Weyland then left, and they haven't
Magone said he is glad he taped the
encounter with Hussey, but he doesn't expect it will absolve him
and his co-workers in everyone's eyes.
want to think we did something wrong, they're going to think it,"
he said. "But I don't think we did." He said he learned one
important lesson from the incident. "Next time I do a search
warrant, I'm going to videotape and record everything."
He said what is particularly galling is the fact
that he and his co-workers were criticized so harshly for carrying
weapons. He is, he explains, a law enforcement officer, and he
wears a weapon every day, even when he's at his desk in a large
office building near downtown Idaho Falls.
discouraging because I've worked really hard in this state," said
the Montana native. "You catch all these people poaching elk, deer,
bighorn sheep, antelope, and no one questions why you are armed.
Then you go to serve this search warrant, and all the politicians
all of a sudden call us "armed federal agents." But no one seemed
to mind that when we were doing all these other things."
Lutz said she has worked on transcripts of
federal law-enforcement actions where the outcome was much more
serious, including some tapes made during the 11-day standoff near
white separatist Randy Weaver's northern Idaho cabin in 1992 that
left three dead.
She said Magone and his
co-workers should be commended, not castigated. "I thought they
handled themselves professionally," she said. "They did a really
good job. It could have turned out a different way."
Calling it "a shame," Magone said recently he
wishes some of the prominent elected officials who jumped on the
bandwagon had bothered to collect all the facts.
Dan Egan, a former High
Country News intern, reports for the Idaho Falls Post