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Snake rescuer 'bitten'?

DWR raids W.V. man's home, yet still turns to him for help

James Dix shows off China, an 11-foot, 90-pound albino Burmese python that was rescued from Idaho.
James Dix shows off China, an 11-foot, 90-pound albino Burmese python that was rescued from Idaho.
Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

A West Valley man who operates a reptile rescue service obtained snakes and a lizard from an undercover informant, then found himself enmeshed in high-powered law enforcement by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Yet even after charges were filed against him, the DWR continues to rely on James Dix's Reptile Rescue Service. It still turns over to him nonprohibited reptiles that need care.

Confusingly, the charges hinge on Dix not having the proper type of permits. Yet different sorts of permits are involved, and at the time of the raid, Dix had a certificate allowing him to handle any type of reptile delivered to him by the DWR for rehabilitation.

Dix estimates about 14 armed officers searched his home for six hours during the January 2004 incident. Nobody was allowed to enter or leave.

Mike Fowlks — now chief of law enforcement for the DWR and at the time a captain supervising the execution of the search warrant — checked his notes and said there were seven armed officers, including himself, and they searched for four hours.

The result: six class B misdemeanor charges.

Dix is charged with possessing without the proper permit a midget faded rattlesnake, a Gila monster (a venomous lizard), a Utah milksnake, a southwestern speckled rattlesnake and a Panamint rattlesnake. The sixth charge is that he "intentionally captured seven Great Basin rattlesnakes, valued at $5 each."

A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for Monday in West Valley City Justice Court.

Dix believes the DWR wanted to get him because of a dispute over permits and set him up.

"We had a rapport with them. It wasn't like I was a total stranger. . . . I would have given them the stuff" without the need for armed officers, he said.

Richard Ashcroft, the DWR's lead investigator in the case, said Dix originally was not targeted by the federal and state agents but became involved when he approached an undercover informant.

The background

For the past five years, Dix, a plumber, has run Reptile Rescue Service Inc. out of his house. He and the group's other volunteers try to save, rehabilitate and find new homes for discarded, displaced or injured reptiles.

"It's love for the animals," he said in a telephone interview. "They need a place to go."

The group is careful about where it places reptiles. Members visit the person hoping to take one in, to make sure the home is safe. Otherwise, the reptile could be injured or killed by another pet.

"I meet a lot of turtles like that — doggy bone turtles, we call them," he said.

Besides saving reptiles, the volunteers teach about safety to Scout and school groups, outdoors enthusiasts, employees of a public botanical garden, firefighters, animal agencies and narcotics officers. Most of these could chance upon snakes while hiking, and the officers might find themselves confronting dangerous animals in a suspect's home, like a rattlesnake in a cage where drug paraphernalia is stashed.

No special permission is needed to rescue ordinary pet store reptiles. But certificates are needed for venomous and certain rare ones.

Dix said he has worked closely with DWR and Hogle Zoo. Because he had a permit, the division would give him animals seized in drug raids or that showed up where they were not wanted, so he could find proper locations for them.

Dix believes DWR had him provide this free care for animals not covered by his permit.

"I'm holding prohibited species for them and feeding them for them and shipping animals out for them," he said.

Ashcroft said there are two types of permits involved.

"His certificate of registration that allowed him to accept those animals was very general," he said. "It didn't specify how many animals or what kind."

It simply said that if animals are given to Dix by the division, he can hold and rehabilitate them. That's one type of permit. The other is for personal use, and it's specific, Ashcroft said. He believes Dix confused the two types of permits when he said he was given animals by the division that are beyond the terms of his permit.

Actually, apparently there's now another kind of permit. Fowlks said the general certificate Dix had at the time is no longer in effect. Now he can't take in prohibited or controlled animals, he said. According to Fowlks, the rule was changed about a year and a half ago.

Fowlks confirmed the DWR turns over animals to Dix and his group for rescue.

"We need folks like James Dix to help us out," he said. "We can't do this by ourselves. . . . We couldn't get the job done without folks like James. They provided a service for us. We understand and appreciate that service."

Ashcroft said the DWR's turning over animals for rehabilitation did not put Dix in violation of his permit.

According to Fowlks, none of the animals involved in the misdemeanor charges was given to Dix by the division for rehabilitation.

Conflict over permits

Dix wanted to obtain permits for other species of rattlesnakes, which would be used for teaching programs in southern Utah. He also wanted one for a Gila monster, which is classified as a sensitive species.

"We put in for the permits. They denied them," he said.

A state official claimed that he should not have been issued the original permits, either, Dix added. The state wanted to take them back and he said he would fight in court, he added.

"And so they let us keep what we have now," he said.

Meanwhile, he intended to contest the denial of additional permits. But "they did the raid on us before we got the thing contested."

The sting

"They set up a sting, brought in a guy at the Reptile Expo at the fairgrounds," Dix said. "They had him gift us for the snakes" for which he had unsuccessfully sought permits. The informant also sold him a Gila monster, he added.

Why didn't he just tell the informant no, he didn't want the reptiles?

The group intended to try again to get the necessary permits, Dix said. Also, what it does is rehabilitate and take in reptiles that need homes.

The agent had said a Utah milksnake in the matter was removed from the wild by researchers who were working on a project to check if it was a sensitive species, according to Dix.

The snake was supposed to be examined, photographed and released, but instead someone kept it. The snake would be destroyed and the person who had it would be in trouble, according to that story, as Dix related it.

"We are a rescue, so we did take it," he said.

The tale about the Gila monster, he said, was "that they were just selling it to me and it was supposed to come with paperwork." It was going to be covered by the permit when he received it, Dix added.

It was not intended for resale, he said. "We don't sell anything."

Fowlks and Ashcroft could not talk about details of the case, pending trial. "That's all going to be testimony in court," Fowlks said. But they say Dix was not set up.

The action was part of a three-state investigation of illegal possession and sale of reptiles, dubbed "Operation Slither." Other searches were carried out in California and Arizona.

"We had a covert operation going on prior to this," Ashcroft said, speaking of the dispute over Dix's permits. Dix wasn't a target when the investigation began, and those running it were not aware of any dispute with Dix over permits at that time, he said.

"Our informant was not told to target him," he said. "He approached our informant and started to inquire about snakes."

Fowlks said the larger investigation, which also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, began after the DWR was contacted by a couple of people interested in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

"These were private citizens who were concerned about illegal activity within their hobby," he said.

Main targets were the "illegal collection and commercialization" of animals, he said.

Ashcroft said the laws are in place to protect Utah's wildlife.

"Some of our endangered species are prized" in the commercial world, he added.

The search

Armed agents raided the Dix home, "confiscating these reptiles and writing up citations for taking in prohibited and sensitive species without permits," Dix said. These were permits, he said, "that we had already applied for."

The raid went on for hours. Asked what took so long, Dix said it was the agents "just taking pictures and ID-ing and putting stickers on tanks and everything that's in there, and identifying snakes. . . . They didn't have the cages to keep them in, so they were taking my tank."

This visit by armed agents was overkill, he thought.

"It wasn't like they didn't know who I was. I had been working for them for years," he said.

If a couple of officers had knocked on his door, he said, he would have turned over the reptiles. He would not have risked a physical confrontation.

"It's nuts," he said. "It's still a class B misdemeanor. It's ridiculous."

Why were so many officers sent to West Valley City?

"We're dealing with dangerous snakes." Fowlks said. "We knew we were dealing with poisonous animals, hot animals."

An officer had to be in charge of the animals. Others had to interview Dix, photograph, catalogue and enter the snakes into custody, he said.

"We only use the number of people . . . that are necessary for us to do that quickly and effectively, and to keep the safety of the individuals involved and the safety of the officers involved."

According to the attorney general's office, each class B misdemeanor can carry a maximum possible penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Contributing: Doug Smeath