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CSI: Planet Earth

THE ECO-COP: Thomas has busted snake smugglers.

On a crisp October day in 2007, two men set off into the woods of New York's Hudson Valley. The younger man carried a pair of venomous copperhead snakes, and the older hiker, posing as an amateur wildlife photographer, carried a camera. The snake-toting man had no idea his hiking buddy was Lieutenant Richard Thomas, an investigator working undercover for the New York State Bureau of Environmental Crimes. The young man had sold Thomas a protected red salamander through kingsnake.com, a Web site popular with reptile and amphibian enthusiasts. That transaction promptly turned the seller into Target F, part of Operation Shellshock, New York State's effort to curtail the huge black-market trade in protected and endangered wildlife.

Over the next two years, Thomas and his partner, Daniel Sullivan, collected evidence -- including detailed conversations secretly recorded during the October hike -- that led to the arrest of Target F and dozens of other wildlife poachers and traders. The investigators uncovered thousands of snapping turtles bound for dinner plates in China after being laundered through a farm in Louisiana. They also discovered dozens of endangered Canadian rattlesnakes stashed in secret compartments in a van whose driver was lured to a meeting in a parking lot in Niagara Falls.

For Thomas, Operation Shellshock fulfilled a boyhood dream that began in New York's woods, where he hiked with his sportsman father and imagined himself an officer of the law, chasing and catching thieves who plundered the forest. As a youngster, Thomas says, he thought catching poachers was "probably the most glamorous job there was."

As environmental protection goes, there are those who craft policy and those who wage courtroom battles -- and then there are people like Thomas, who work the trenches, meticulously gathering the evidence required to enforce the law. Thomas applied to a unit of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 1989, a specialized squad of police officers who focus on environmental law. Out of thousands of applicants, he was one of 29 admitted, and he enrolled in basic training that year. He learned to uphold criminal law, as regular police officers do, and also to enforce a separate and vast universe of environmental law. Once on the job, Thomas routinely carried six volumes of environmental rules and regulations in the trunk of his car, just for reference.

Thomas spent more than a decade on the Environmental Conservation Police force as a uniformed officer, conducting aerial investigations of chemical spills and checking permits held by recreational hunters, as well as making traffic stops and arresting the occasional armed robber. In 1999 he was named Conservation Officer of the Year by the Northeast Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association. His promotion to the position of investigator soon followed.

His first assignment was to gather evidence against a company suspected of polluting the drinking water of the small city of Elmira, New York, with lead. Working closely with a special agent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas scoured some 50,000 documents, studied historical photographs, and conducted hundreds of hours of field interviews, eventually proving that the source was a metal foundry, Kennedy Valve, which was using scrap metal to make fire hydrants and other products.

Thomas's passion for the environment plays out at his home in Caledonia, New York, too, where he and his wife have restored 23 acres of wetland to promote biodiversity. Local science teachers use his property as an outdoor classroom. "It's very satisfying," he says, ever hopeful that nature will inspire the students to protect the environment, just as his childhood adventures inspired him.

Thomas is even holding out hope for Target F, whose knowledge of herpetology impressed the investigator. "He could benefit our understanding and protection of reptiles and amphibians," Thomas says -- if he could find a way to channel his enthusiasm into more productive pursuits. "But that's up to him now."

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Wendy Lyons Sunshine writes about the environment, business, and health for Audubon,  Sierra, Worth, AARP The Magazine, and other publications. Her work has  received a variety of awards, including one from the Society of  Environmental Journalis... READ MORE >

These investigators are truly the cream of the crop among police agencies. It takes a special passion to work any undercover investigation, and to do it alone in the swamps with bad guys and venomous snakes is something most people would never dream of. My hats off to them, the world would be much worse off without them.

I have had the extreme pleasure to work along side "Dick" in the birth of The Mackay Wildlife Preserve & Richard Thomas Overlook in Caledonia,NY.His compassion & expertise is second to none.He not only goes after the bad guy with great effort,he also has compassion for them,a very blessed virtue.
Be careful and take care of yourself Inspector Thomas----

I am so impressed by Mr. Richard Thomas and his work. I think this would be great stuff for a reality TV show...starring Dick.

This is an excellent article. As an investigator with the Province of Ontario's Conservation Officer Service I have had the opportunity to work with Lt. Richard Thomas as well as Investigator Sullivan. You have painted a picture of Dick as he truly is. He is a person with a passion and dedication for protecting our natural resources, and I might add that Dick has an exceptional sense of humour. A quality which is much appreciated when times are stressful. Thank you for writing this article and opening a door to a world that many are not aware of and honouring those who truly deserve it.

Vic Miller
Special Investigations Services Unit
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

I am forwarding this article to 3 friends of mine - this is great work and, even though it may just be his job, someone ought to give Richard Thomas an award. We need more people to chase down the slimeballs.
Sam