It begins in a tacky bar. Sheep and elk heads peer down from smoky walls. A woman snuggles close to a man who isn't her husband. Suddenly, a strapping hulk of a dude named Moose James saunters over and ...
From this point, Lucinda Delaney Schroeder's new book, "A Hunt for Justice," leads readers through illegal game hunts and rough "spike camps" with an undercover agent trying to pull herself off as "Jayne Dyer"; an unscrupulous guide who claims he'll kill any officer who infiltrates his camp; and an informant with a drinking problem and loose tongue.
And the best part? It's all true.
Schroeder, a former special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recaptures a 1992 sting operation in the middle of the Brooks Range in which six guides, pilots, hunters and smugglers were charged with hunting and wildlife violations. The cast also includes three Spanish hunters, a wealthy German, a guide's wife who keeps her makeup perfectly intact even in the middle of nowhere, and a host of other characters so colorful they might have walked off an episode of "Northern Exposure."
The book is reminiscent of a Nancy Drew story for grown-ups. The writing is lively, short on description and long on tension. And if it isn't exactly literary, no matter. Schroeder's story is so quirky and appealing that readers can't help being pulled in. Browse through a few pages and you'll soon imagine that you're huddled in a tent in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, worried that your cover will be blown, that you'll be killed, your body tossed aside as bear bait, that you'll never see your husband or daughter again.
The tension never lets up. As soon as Schroeder arrives in camp, she is whisked off with top guide Bob Bowman (many of the names were changed in the book to protect the guilty) and flown to a remote site in the Brooks Range. There she is left alone as Bowman takes off to supposedly scout sheep. Unsure if her cover identity had been revealed, Schroeder has no idea if he is coming back:
"I was alone in a wilderness the size of Texas with a rifle and two candy bars in my pocket," she writes. "An hour passed. I sank down onto a rock. ... Images of my daughter swam around me. I felt her little arms locked around my neck as I carried her around the house. ... Why couldn't I be a normal mother?"
FIRST IN THE FIELD
When Schroeder joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, there were two other agents, who both worked cargo jobs. With a degree in criminology, Schroeder wanted to be more than a baggage checker. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy.
"I was the first woman in the field," she said. "I was breaking new ground, and it had been predominantly male for so long. They were resistant."
In the book, she matter-of-factly breezes over the struggles: snarled comments from male colleagues, impartial treatment, failure to get tough assignments. She transferred around until she found a comfortable fit in Wisconsin. When Alaska special agent Tim Eicher called from Fairbanks in 1992 with an undercover job near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she jumped, even though the opportunity meant time away from her family.
"She's just a bitty thing," Eicher said from Wyoming, where he currently works as special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "barely 5 feet tall. They never see her coming. Because she's tough but still a lady. And they're never looking for that."
After organizing funds and ironing out details, Schroeder and informer Roy Martin (who performed undercover work as part of a former bear-poaching sentence) were on a plane headed for Bowman's camp in the Brooks Range. After surviving the first awkward days, she was dropped off at a spike camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where she spent over 14 hours trudging after an illegal sheep.
"It was physically the hardest thing I went through," she said. "It tested me. Shooting an illegal sheep, well, it's kind of like you're doing something you don't want in order to take down the camp. You have to go with the flow, even though you don't want to. You have to play the role of a normal hunter and act excited about the kill."
Schroder befriends Bowman's wife and another woman at the camp, picking up a fair share of clues while helping out in the kitchen. She endures more hunts and a few close calls but nothing as difficult as the two days informant Martin was off bear hunting with Bowman.
"I was terrified that Roy (Martin) was going to blow our cover. And he almost did," Schroeder said. "They would have dropped us off somewhere or killed us and gotten rid of our bodies. It was a terrifying feeling. You're stuck there. It's a very insular world. Nothing else exists, and there was no secure communication."
It isn't always pretty when Schroeder describes the illegal hunts. Bowman's pilot herded animals straight to the hunters, who often did little more than raise their guns and shoot.
"The illegal hunters only cared about bragging rights," Schroeder said. "They had no interest in the life and death cycle of nature or actual hunting procedures. They wanted their trophy animal, and they wanted it now."
Stan Pruszenski, Alaska special agent in charge of law enforcement, said illegal hunting still goes on.
"Guiding in Alaska is big business," he said. "People spend a lot of money, thousands and thousands of dollars, and sometimes they do a lot of bad things in order to be successful."
The issues, he said, are complex. Fishing and gaming laws are difficult to comprehend and oftentimes a guide can break them without the hunters' knowledge. The Brooks Range case, however, was so blatant that it was impossible for any of the hunters to believe they were following the law.
"They were advertising 100 percent success," Pruszenski said. "That's impossible. No hunt is always successful."
At the end of the 11-day ordeal, Schroeder and informant Martin arrived in Anchorage, smelly, dirty and exhausted -- and loaded with enough information to bring down Bowman, his guides, his pilot plus a couple of others. A few months later, through a mass coordination of law enforcement agents in multiple states, they were all arrested.
Eicher still enjoys talking about the Brooks Range operation.
"Once they (the agents) leave, you don't have control over anything," he said. "They're gone, and it's out of your hands. Think of it as the expectant father, back in the olden days, when you sat in the waiting room and waited. You want your wife to come through the birth healthy, and you want her to deliver for you. Well, in this case, Cindy didn't just deliver. She had sextuplets."
In agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Schroeder had to wait until she retired to write "A Hunt for Justice." By then, she had much of it mapped out in her head. Getting the words down on paper, however, proved more difficult.
"I had been writing case reports for 30 years and had to break away from that writing style and learn another one," she said. "But as far as recalling events, that was easy."
She worked with writing groups, attended conferences and hung around mystery writers to polish her craft.
"In the end, I wanted it to be a great hunting story but more," she said. "I wanted it to be about overcoming obstacles and facing challenges and really doing what has to be done."
One of her biggest challenges described in the book is struggling to balance her role as mother with her role as agent. Throughout the adventure, she thinks about her daughter, worries over her, wonders what she's up to. As soon as she gets back to Wisconsin, she rushes to her daughter's school, arriving in clothes that haven't been washed in weeks and boots still smeared with animal blood. One of the other mothers glares and makes searing comments, but Schroeder ignores her, rushes to her daughter, picks her up and hugs her against her smelly clothes.
"I was back, and I was OK," she said. "I was concerned with leaving my daughter motherless. I suppose to this day people will criticize me for taking this risk. By my daughter (now 21) never really knew the whole story until she read the book. She just wrote me a Mother's Day card telling me how proud she is. And that made me feel so good."
Daily News reporter Cinthia Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.