Ernie Lemuel Stewart Pleads Guilty in U.S. Federal Cour
The United States Attorney's Office announced that during a federal court session in Billings, on February 8, 2012, before Senior U.S. District Judge Jack D. Shanstrom, ERNIE LEMUEL STEWART, a 33-year-old resident of Wyola, pled guilty to unlawfully trafficking in eagles. Sentencing has been set for May 9, 2012. He is currently released on special conditions.
In an Offer of Proof filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark S. Smith, the government stated it would have proved at trial the following:
On January 29, 2010, STEWART offered to sell three immature golden eagles. He offered them for sale through a third party, Gilbert Walks. Walks offered to sell the bird carcasses to a confidential private informant that, unbeknownst to STEWART or Walks, was working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The informant told Walks he was interested in the deal. Before they could conclude the transaction, on February 2, 2010, STEWART changed the deal: he now had five dead eagles (three immature golden and two bald), which he would sell for $2,000. The informant asked Walks for the name of the seller, but Walks declined to identify him. Walks said the seller was nervous about the sale of the birds, that he knew about Walks' previous conviction for killing and selling eagles.
Walks later identified STEWART as the seller, and stated that he had agreed to the terms of the sale. The informant accepted the deal. On February 4, 2010, the informant electronically transferred $1,000 to a Wells Fargo account owned by STEWART. The balance ($1,000) was paid to STEWART's account on February 5, 2010, after the packages containing the five dead eagles had been shipped from Hardin, and after the informant had received tracking numbers. On February 8, 2010, the informant received two Priority Mail packages from Walks. As later confirmed by laboratory analysis, the boxes contained three whole-carcass golden eagles, and two whole-carcass bald eagles.
In March, 2010, the informant started dealing with STEWART directly. In the course of these dealings, STEWART admitted he had hunted and killed the eagles he sold to the informant. STEWART admitted the eagles were hard to get because of "the law and everything." STEWART admitted he typically sold eagles with a partner in Arizona, where he could get $2,500 per bird. STEWART stated he could have made far more money - like $3,500 - on the immature golden eagle he sold the informant via Walks. STEWART said he baited eagles with deer ribs near Aberdeen and would sneak up on them and shoot them. STEWART described how he tried to not shoot the wings or the tail. He also described how he removed the feathers, gutted the birds, and used tennis balls to shape the claws.
On June 18, 2010, STEWART offered to sell the informant five (5) bald eagle tail fans for $2,000. The informant said he was interested in the deal. STEWART said he was acting as middle man for three other people. On June 19, 2010, the informant and STEWART met at the I-90 exit for Aberdeen. STEWART produced a cowboy hat box. Inside the box were nine eagle tails, and five eagle wing fans. STEWART said the price was $300 per tail, and $100 per wing fan. The informant declined the wing fans, but bought seven of the tails.
Walks pled guilty to federal charges and is awaiting sentencing.
STEWART faces possible penalties of 2 years in prison, a $10,000 fine and 1 year supervised release.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.