Last year, a man on the Hawaii island of Molokai confessed to killing an endangered Hawaiian monk seal — and nothing happened.
He didn't just whisper it to a friend or post it on Facebook. He told a New York Times Magazine reporter that he hit an 8-year-old bull in the head with a rock out of anger and under peer pressure. Millions of people read the story in the May 8 edition titled "Who's Killing The Monk Seals?"
Those readers included federal law enforcement agents whose job it is to protect Hawaiian monk seals, a species that has been classified as endangered under federal law since 1976.
Now, the federal agent overseeing the case, Paul Newman, says there are few leads to go on although the incident is still under investigation. So he wouldn't say if officers had interviewed the young man who'd confessed. He also wouldn't say if police asked locals for help in tracking the guy down as the Times reporter had.
"Molokai is such a tight-knit community that they probably prefer to deal with it in their own way," Newman told Civil Beat. "We can't make people come forward."
From 2009 to 2012, humans are suspected of killing at least eight monk seals in the main Hawaiian islands. Rewards of tens of thousands of dollars have been offered and federal officials say they make serious efforts to investigate cases and bring offenders to justice.
But do they?
The response to the Molokai seal killing as well as the case of a dead monk seal on Kauai in 2009 suggest that, despite the public outcry and strict federal law, enforcement is lacking and punishment is minimal.
Monk seal recovery program volunteers and lawmakers concerned about the species' survival are critical of the legal system's response to the killings. The one case that has been solved resulted in a punishment so light that it is hardly a deterrent, they say. And they question whether it's really that difficult find someone who has confessed to a crime on Molokai, an island of fewer than 8,000 residents.
“The federal government has really fallen down on its responsibility to actively manage monk seals, and that’s part of the reason why the population has declined so severely,” Marti Townsend, director of the Honolulu-based nonprofit KAHEA, told Civil Beat last year.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heads the multi-pronged effort to prevent the species from going extinct, through educational outreach and enforcement of laws protecting marine mammals. The proverbial clock is ticking though. Scientists say the monk seal population has been dwindling since the 1950s and estimate there are only 1,000 or so left.
"Any time a monk seal suspicious death is reported we immediately respond to it and look for witnesses and evidence," said Newman, who is in charge of the four agents who comprise the Honolulu field office of NOAA's Pacific Islands Division.
"We take it very seriously ... but our hands are tied a lot of the time."
Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, considers the Endangered Species Act to be "woefully under-enforced" around the country. But he recognizes the complicated and sensitive dynamics at play — especially in Hawaii — that must be considered in how best to protect a species.
With the monk seal, the most important thing for the seal’s recovery aside from preserving its habitat is putting a stop to people killing them, Cummings said.
Part of that is deterrents — that it’s illegal and there are severe consequences — and part is education and outreach.
"The bigger issue is not whether the person who admitted to killing it is prosecuted or not, but whether in the end there’s a better coexistence with monk seals," he said.
Anatomy of a Monk Seal Investigation
Four years ago, NOAA investigated Hawaii's only monk seal killing that resulted in a conviction.
Charles Vidinha, a Kauai resident, received a three-month jail term and a $25 fine for killing a female seal in 2009.
Vidinha got a light sentence compared to what he could have received. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the maximum penalty is a year in prison and a $50,000 fine. State lawmakers later beefed up penalties under state law, making it a felony.
A detailed look at the case provides a window into the challenges faced by law enforcement in finding and prosecuting crimes against animals that some locals, including angry fishermen, think are better off dead.
Civil Beat reviewed the case records and interviewed agents who investigated and tracked down the suspect. We were unable to reach Vidinha, who has a record of homelessness.
The female monk seal was found dead at Pilaa Bay on the north shore of Kauai. The seal was about three weeks away from giving birth to a male pup.
Two local hikers making their way down the cliffs toward the beach heard three gunshots and snapped photos of the scene. The images captured the seal as well as a white Ford pick-up truck parked in the near distance. The photos would become key evidence in the case.
When federal agents from the Honolulu office landed on Kauai they found a 600- to 700-pound seal laid out on a table in a parking lot in Lihue. Her skin was rolled back exposing the fetus, that measured about three feet long.
Two bullets from a .22-caliber rifle had hit the seal. One went through the chest, piercing a lung, before exiting her body. The second hit the fetus, lodging in the amniotic fluid and filling the mother’s abdomen with blood, according to the autopsy report.
The property near where the dead seal was found belonged to Jimmy Pflueger, a retired car salesman, who in July was found guilty of reckless endangering in connection with the deaths of seven Kauai residents when he allegedly altered a dam on his property, causing a massive flood. The plea was in exchange for the state dropping manslaughter charges.
Two agents, Brandon Jim On and Take Tomson, took a ride down to the beach in the back of a pick-up truck with a man who worked odd jobs on the property — Charles Vidinha.
But an examination of the scene turned up no new clues.
For his part, Vidinha told the investigators that he'd gone to Pilaa Beach with his dog Ace the day before to unload firewood for the Memorial Day weekend party. He drank a couple of beers and cut coconuts, throwing the husks into a stream. He said he didn't own any firearms, didn't hear any gunshots and had never seen a monk seal at Pilaa Beach.
Vidinha, 78 at the time and divorced, lived alone, sometimes in a small shack in Anahola and sometimes in his truck, selling bottles and doing odd jobs.
The truck turned out to be the same truck that was in the photos snapped by the hikers who had discovered the dead seal. The pictures showed the seal swimming away from shore and Vidinha's white truck parked in front of the beach.
Vidinha became the prime suspect.
Police and federal agents later linked the bullets taken from the seal to a gun registered to Vidinha.
At 6 a.m., 15 agents from NOAA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kauai Police Department rolled up in four-wheel drive vehicles at the Anahola property. Vidinha, who'd been sleeping, answered the door. No weapons were found but Vidinha later said in court that he'd destroyed the rifle.
Ultimately, an acquaintance of Vidinha's told agents that the man had confessed to killing the seal, saying that he shot it to scare it away from the beach where he was planning to fish. Vidinha didn't want the seal eating the fish he hoped to catch.
Vidinha was arrested three weeks later and released on a $10,000 bond. While awaiting his trial he was ordered to live at Hope, Help and Healing Kauai, a home that provides treatment for substance abuse.
On Sept. 25, 2009, he pleaded guilty and served his 90-day sentence at the Honolulu Federal Detention Facility.
The plea agreement noted that, "Vidinha deeply regrets his actions and he apologizes to the entire community."
On and Tomson said the light sentence was due to Vidinha's age and poverty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Silverberg, who prosecuted the case, told reporters covering the sentencing the same thing.
Vidinha had never been in trouble with the law, he was broke, living out of a car and essentially homeless, Silverberg told the Honolulu Advertiser in September 2009.
"The defendant claims he was just trying to scare the seal because he wanted to go fishing and was just concerned the seal would eat the fish," he said. "We have nothing to refute that."
But some Hawaii lawmakers criticized the prosecutor's office, saying the punishment was too lenient and successfully pushed forward legislation that made it a felony to harm or kill threatened or endangered species. The measure increased the penalty to a maximum five years in prison for killing a seal.
The Hawaiian monk seal is only found in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. NOAA has been considering expanding protections for the seal around the main Hawaiian Islands, following a petition by environmental groups seeking to enlarge the critical habitat area, but it's been met with resistance.
Increasing numbers of the seals, which in decades past have mostly confined themselves to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, have been showing up in waters around Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island and Maui County.
The proposed protections have sparked anger from local fishermen who view the seals as a threat to their livelihood. Speculation has been growing that the rise in hostility toward monk seals was prompting the killings.
Since 2010, three monk seals have been found dead on Molokai, two of them bludgeoned to death, and a fourth monk seal showed up dead on Kauai. NOAA is investigating the deaths as suspicious.
There hasn't been another suspicious death since last year, but there have been cases of harassment that NOAA has investigated.
In January, someone shot a seal in the head with a speargun on Oahu but it survived.
In another incident earlier this year, the same teen who posted a video of himself and his friends laughing while pulling a tiger shark ashore on the Big Island also posted photos of himself and a friend flashing shakas in front of an angry female seal and her pup, Newman said.
NOAA, working with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement, investigated that case and sent the two kids "warning letters."
Newman said the kids were remorseful and the offense was a "first time kind of thing" so the punishment was appropriate.
"They got what was coming to them," he said.
Plus, Newman said, there is what he calls "local justice."
The kid is haole, he said, and word got out that he was harassing the seals. He declined to say any more about it on the record.
"Local justice" was also the only outcome for the young Molokai man featured in the New York Times article. The story reports that community activist Walter Ritte found out who the man was, went to his house and talked to him about the seal.
Ritte did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Ritte told the New York Times reporter that the man was remorseful over the killing and that he'd gone from thinking the seals were a nuisance to fishermen to seeing them as a species fighting for survival much like Native Hawaiians.
Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said it's important to put monk seal killings in a social context. This affects the ratio between enforcement and outreach, he said.
"It is a conundrum in many different ways."