HOMEWOOD, Calif. — Official and unofficial investigations continue regarding the shooting of a black bear at Lake Tahoe in July, with concerned residents and organizations chipping in $15,000 for a reward to anyone with specific information on the case.
The body of the bear, named “Sunny” by local residents, was found early in the morning on July 30 on a beach at Homewood. Since, the Department of Fish and Game’s Law Enforcement Division has officially taken over the investigation, but to some Tahoe residents, the division’s efforts might not be enough.
BEAR League Executive Director Ann Bryant and the league, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting Tahoe’s animals, collected the $15,000 from various groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the BEAR League itself and many individuals with the hope it will lead to more information on the case and ultimately a conviction.
“It’s growing every day. Within 20 minutes it was up to $3,000, and then it was $10,000 and then it was $15,000. I’m sure it will keep growing,” Bryant said.
Bryant said she’s mystified by the current investigation, and isn’t convinced Fish and Game is doing all it can to pursue the case.
“We’re hoping the DFG will follow through with an investigation. If they don’t, I’m worried about the public’s reaction,” Bryant said. “They want justice. I think everyone is hoping a case will be brought against him. If it doesn’t happen, then all bets are off.”
Fish and Game Enforcement Information Officer Patrick Foy said the agency is doing all it can, but without hard evidence, investigators can’t press suit against the man, an unidentified person the department is calling the main person of interest. The man hired an attorney immediately after the shooting and refuses to speak with DFG representatives, Foy said.
The Sierra Sun’s sister newspaper, the Tahoe Daily Tribune, also tried to contact him, but did not get a response.
“If he doesn’t want to talk, we can’t force him to. If there were a big blood stain on his property and we found an empty shotgun shell, then we could file for a court order,” Foy said.
Foy expressed frustration regarding calls he’s received from people lamenting the lack of information about the investigation and highlighting evidence such as a recent video published on the web that Foy said just doesn’t cut it when it comes to a criminal investigation.
“People call me telling me I’m stupid and incompetent. I’ve been on the Wall of Shame,” Foy said. “We would love to catch the guy who killed this bear, but it’s not helping that people are telling us that we’re stupid and incompetent.”
Since July, many people have voiced their reactions to the killing on the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame Facebook page. The Wall of Shame was founded last year as a place for open, uncensored dialogue, said Incline Village resident Mark Smith, administrator and spokesman for the site. But recent threats toward the alleged shooter have forced the administrators to change their policy.
“Some of the threats went in a direction I was uncomfortable with. We tried to guide the conversation. It’s a fine line between giving people a place to make their comments and crossing that line,” Smith said.
The public response was unprecedented, he said. He entered into private conversations with some of the users regarding their comments and even blocked some of the worst offenders from posting on the page, but ultimately he tried to keep it as open as possible.
Some of those comments might even cross into cybercrime territory, according to one attorney.
Internet law can be a murky issue, with its very existence up for debate, but postings stating the suspect’s name, address and phone number could have legal repercussions, according to Nasir Pasha, an attorney with Top Floor Legal, Professional Corporation. The California law firm has dealt with cyberlaw when common law cases become connected with the Internet.
“The right of privacy is actually a constitutional right in California. When it comes to publishing personal information — a phone number and address — it could be a violation of privacy,” Pasha said.
A viable defense would include proving that the information is already part of the public record, say on Google.com for example, he said. Defamation could also be a consideration, but then the case’s facts would have to be taken into account. If someone names the suspect as the bear’s killer, and the man is then proven to have shot the animal, it wouldn’t be defamatory, Pasha explained.
He compared the situation to ABC’s Brian Ross’ gaffe, linking the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings to another man of the same name with no connection to the case.
A restraining order could be in order if posts calling to burn the man’s house down and threats against him were part of an organized effort to harass the man, Pasha said, but ultimately the situation is a complicated one and actual damages would be hard to prove in a lawsuit.
As far as the $15,000 reward goes, neither Foy with DFG nor Placer County Sheriff’s Office Lt. John Weaver see any legal issues with it. In fact, both agree it’s a positive move and hope information will come out of it.
“If somehow a reward would help someone with information come forward with information about the case, we’re all for it,” Weaver said.