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The Muscatatuck Scrapers

Alan Garbers (Photo courtesy of Indiana Outdoor News)
Alan Garbers (Photo courtesy of Indiana Outdoor News)

Reprinted with permission from
Alan Garbers
Indiana Outdoor News

One of the big problems that Indiana Conservation Officers and Federal Wildlife Officers have to deal with on our state’s wildlife refuges is the prorogation of marijuana. Since the plants are found on state property the officers often have no way of linking it to a local grower. Often they back off without disturbing anything and start watching the area. Countless hours of surveillance can end with no arrests if the grower catches the slightest hint that the marijuana plants have been discovered. In such a case the area is cleaned of all illegal plants and gear.

With millions of dollars on the line growers try many tricks to hide their plants but they are limited in places that have the right conditions for marijuana growth. Marijuana needs a great deal of sunlight, just like corn. In fact cornfields that border the wildlife refuges are often used to grow a crop of “weed”. The grower will sneak through the refuge and enter the backside of cornfields unseen. The tall corn is perfect for hiding the tall, hybrid marijuana plants. Some growers even go to the extent to plant their seedlings in a preset pattern, replacing the corn seedlings with their own. The pattern makes it easier to later harvest the marijuana in total darkness.

Other marijuana locations exist naturally. Growers will follow the rich, moist bottom ground along creeks until they find a hidden oasis with strong sunlight. Other times they utilize areas where a natural opening exists in the forest canopy due to wind or insect damage to trees. Luckily, many of these same locations are known by the law enforcement officers and are watched in the spring and summer. If a batch is found, high-tech surveillance gear is deployed in hopes to capture photographic evidence of the plot growers.

One of the best tools an ICO or FWO has in his or her toolbox is local citizens. They are often the eyes and ears of the officers. Such is the case for Federal Wildlife Officer Frank Polyak.

Citizens alerted Polyak to suspicious activity on Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge one summer a few years ago. The information he received centered on several young men that were seen sneaking in from a road that ran along the perimeter of the refuge. The reports stated that the men were often carrying backpacks and armed with machetes. "We thought they were harvesting marijuana."

Officer Polyak investigated and repeatedly tried to catch the young men during their clandestine activities, even going so far as enlisting the aid of the local ICOs and Indiana State Police Officers to provide surveillance. After repeated attempts to catch the young men failed, the officers suspected someone was tipping them off using cell phones. Drug money or free marijuana can buy many friends.

Officer Polyak was frustrated but persistent. He searched the expansive area every day, often hiking into the woods looking for their setups. "Eventually I was able to find where someone had hacked a hidden trail." The trespassers had hacked up and cut down valuable trees as they made a road through the thick forest undergrowth.

Officer Polyak followed the trail suspecting the worst and wary of booby traps. He was surprised by what he found. The men were not marijuana growers as first suspected. They were common thieves that had found a gold mine. "They were using the refuge as access route to steal car parts from neighboring auto salvage."

"With the pieces falling in place the puzzle became clear. “I now had a good hunch where the men were coming from," Polyak said. There was a residence not far from the trail termination and it was there that Officer Polyak headed. When he arrived at the home a middle-aged man was working outside. The officer started interviewing the man to see if he knew of any suspicious activity or if anyone in his family was going into the refuge.

The homeowner acknowledged that his son and a friend had been going into the forest at night. While the father didn't know the reason for the nightly excursions, he was curious. He himself had tried to search for evidence in the thick undergrowth of the refuge but had not succeeded. ¬†Officer Polyak expressed his concern that the man’s son might be involved in illegal activities and possibly to drug crimes.

Together and with a little coaxing they were able to talk the man’s son into coming by the father’s home to talk with Officer Polyak. Once there, the young man confessed to everything, including actually driving to the salvage yard and stealing car parts to later sell as scrap. He also implicated other friends whom Officer Polyak was able to successfully interview and build a case against. Along with federal charges for destruction of public property they were charged with a series of other unrelated crimes.



Last updated: November 26, 2013