Conserving the Nature of America

News Release

Springfield Man Sentenced for Role in Zoo Theft

July 23, 2001


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

A Springfield, Illinois, man was sentenced today for violating Federal wildlife laws protecting migratory birds. Thomas E. Richards, 29, pleaded guilty to possessing a federally protected red-tailed hawk, apparently stolen from the Henson Robinson Zoo in Springfield, as well as capturing and selling wild protected waterfowl. Richards entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore, Central District of Illinois, in Springfield. Richards is currently incarcerated with the Illinois Department of Corrections for a parole violation.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Timothy Santel investigated the case involving the red-tailed hawk, a large bird of prey protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Santel was notified that Springfield Police had apprehended Richards in the early morning hours of July 21, 1998, with a live red-tailed hawk outside a suspected drug house. It is believed Richards, who was on parole from prison at the time for attempted armed robbery, was attempting to sell the hawk. In addition, Santel learned that a red-tailed hawk had been reported stolen from the zoo earlier that same morning.

Santel coordinated the theft investigation with Springfield Park Police Lt. Roger Moore. The investigation at the zoo revealed the door to the cage that housed the hawk had been damaged and the lock removed. The officers obtained a description of the missing hawk, which included the fact that the bird was wearing leather straps, known as jesses, when taken. The description of the stolen hawk matched that of the bird found with Richards. The investigators also learned that Richards had been seen at the zoo during business hours the evening before the theft. It was determined that the hawk Richards possessed was the one stolen from the zoo. The hawk was returned to the zoo.

Richards’ wildlife crimes date back to 1994, when Santel conducted an undercover investigation in central Illinois during which Richards illegally captured and sold wild waterfowl to the agent, in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, when “Operation Bandit” was concluded and charges were brought against several violators, it was learned that Richards was already in prison serving an 8-year sentence for attempted armed robbery. Richards was not charged for the wildlife law violations at that time.

In February 1999, a federal Grand Jury indicted Richards for both crimes, including a felony charge under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the 1994 capture and sale of wild ducks, and a misdemeanor under the Lacey Act for the 1998 receipt, acquisition, and transport of the red-tailed hawk taken in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. He pleaded not guilty in April of this year, but changed his plea at today’s hearing. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Esteban Sanchez.

The Lacey Act is a Federal wildlife law that prohibits sale, possession, and transport of illegally obtained wildlife. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects waterfowl, songbirds, hawks, owls, and many other game and non-game bird species. Enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the act was passed in 1916 to stop the decline of bird populations which were being decimated by market hunters seeking meat, as well as feathers for the fashion industry. Amended most recently in 1989, the act regulates sport hunting of migratory game birds and provides full protection for many other species of migratory birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations.

The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies. For further information about the programs and activities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region, please visit our home page at:

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