Chicago man awaits trial for slaughtering tigers

Defendant says he broke no laws by killing animals

March 18, 2003|By Jon Yates | Jon Yates,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - A Chicago area man admits he was part of a Midwestern ring that slaughtered dozens of animals for their body parts during the late 1990s, shooting some while they were confined to cages.

But Bill Kapp, 37, believes he did nothing wrong.

This week, the Will County corrections officer is scheduled to go on trial in one of the largest endangered species cases in U.S. history. All 15 of Kapp's co-defendants have pleaded guilty in the case, leaving only Kapp to fight the charges in federal court.

Any or all of Kapp's co-defendants could take the stand against him, promising to provide a detailed look into the secretive, multibillion-dollar underground animal trade.

"If this does, in fact, go to trial and a lot of people do take the stand, I think the public and the conservation community are going to be horrified by what they hear," said Craig Hoover, deputy director of Traffic, the wildlife trade-monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund.

Prosecutors say the group bought, sold and killed endangered leopards and tigers, selling their pelts to wealthy collectors and their meat to a Lockport, Ill., butcher. Those who have pleaded guilty have described grisly killings, including a March 25, 1998, incident in which eight tigers were shot and skinned inside a warehouse in Alsip, the largest documented slaughter of endangered tigers in U.S. history.

Kapp, who participated in that 1998 incident, has repeatedly argued that he broke no laws. His argument is simple: The tigers and leopards he killed were mixed breeds and therefore not considered endangered, making them legal to kill.

"They're hybrids, they're not federally protected," said Kapp's attorney, Scott Kamin, who said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed its policies in 1998, removing cross-bred tigers - the offspring of different tiger subspecies-from the endangered species list.

"They've sort of left a loophole, sort of like a tax loophole," Kamin said. "That's how I see it."

Many legal experts disagree, saying Kapp and Kamin have misread the law and that the leopards and tigers Kapp killed were endangered.

"They're all still protected," said Gerry Brady, director of the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., who coordinates the breeding and management of Sumatran tigers for North American zoos. "The law covers all tigers."

Prosecutors make no secret of how they view Kapp's role in the animal-killing ring.

"Certainly, Bill Kapp represents the worst element of the whole operation," said Scott Flaherty, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which worked the case.

Agents began investigating the exotic animal ring in 1997, after a whistleblower in Illinois contacted wildlife officials, concerned that several animals she had sold were later killed for their skins.

Over the next two years, federal officials used undercover agents, taped phone conversations and paperwork to document the lives and deaths of dozens of animals. Armed with a warehouse full of evidence, federal prosecutors began filing charges in 2001 against animal dealers in several states.

Last year, prosecutors announced indictments against seven Chicago-area residents, including Kapp.

The last man to plead guilty in the case, Richard Czimer, admitted in court Feb. 28 that he had purchased the carcasses of endangered tigers and leopards from Kapp and others, then sold the meat in his butcher shop.

Jon Yates writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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