More than thirty birders packed a federal courtroom in Beaumont on Tuesday for the sentencing hearing of Trey Frederick, the nineteen-year-old man who shot and killed two whooping cranes in Nome this January. In the September issue of Texas Monthly, I wrote at length about Frederick’s case and the attempt to reintroduce a population of non-migratory whooping cranes to coastal southwest Louisiana.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn meticulously laid out the rationale behind Frederick’s sentence. Hawthorn studied punishments in other federal cases involving whooping crane shootings and weighed various estimates of the dollar value of the birds when determining the restitution. Ultimately, Hawthorn decided to go with the amount set by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife code: $25,815 in total, or $12,907.50 per bird. Frederick will pay that money in monthly installments to the court, and it will be distributed to two nonprofits, the International Crane Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. Additionally, Frederick will spend five years on probation and serve two hundred hours of community service. While he is on probation, he may not hunt or fish anywhere in the United States or own any firearms.
In April 2015, three birds from a Louisiana flock had flown over to Texas and became something of a local attraction on the crawfish and rice farm they frequented near Nome, a sleepy town nineteen miles west of Beaumont. But two of them met an unhappy end the morning of January 11, when Frederick shot and killed them with a small-caliber rifle. After a swift investigation, Texas Warden Mike Boone and Federal Fish and Wildlife Services Agent Jim Stinebaugh showed up on Frederick’s doorstep and he quickly confessed to shooting the two birds. Frederick pleaded guilty to a violation of the Endangered Species Act in May.
The courtroom was so crowded for Frederick’s hearing Tuesday that Stinebaugh and Boone, along with members of the prosecution team, gave up their seats in the audience and sat in the jury box for the proceedings. “The thing I was most gratified by is by the packed courtroom,” Mary Carter, a former president of Houston Audubon, told me. All eyes were on Frederick, who was wearing a slate gray suit and red tie, as Hawthorn read his sentence. “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve done some stupid stuff. I will do my time in probation,” Frederick told the courtroom afterwards, according to the Beaumont Enterprise.
Frederick faced up to one year in federal prison and a $50,000 fine per bird, but those present Tuesday said they were largely content with the sentence and thought it would serve as a deterrent for future cases. “We were not happy or overjoyed but we were certainly satisfied with the results,” Ann Hamilton, a board member of International Crane Foundation (ICF) who drove in from Houston to attend the hearing, told me by the phone afterward. Liz Smith, ICF’s Texas director, echoed that sentiment: “I am satisfied with the restitution. It’s a substantial one for a young man who is working intermittently,” she said, while adding she had hoped for a restitution closer to $113,886 per bird, the amount suggested to the court by ICF which covers the full the cost of raising these birds by hand and reintroducing them to the wild.
Joe Batte, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said he thought the judge’s sentence was fair. “Five years is a long time and $25,000 is a lot of money,” he said. “It was a significant sentence, especially for a misdemeanor. And it was necessary. It was a senseless crime.”
He said he hopes it will discourage similar acts in the future. “There’s no place for [Frederick’s] ‘it flies, it dies’ mentality,” Batte said, referencing the quote Frederick lists as his favorite on his Facebook profile. “Maybe it’ll stop another young kid from doing the same thing the next time they see something they’ve never shot before.”