‘Poachers Were My Prey’ has drama, suspense
By Jane Beathard
Newly published “Poachers Were My Prey” is the stuff of legend — and reality television.
It’s the autobiography of R.T. Stewart, Ohio’s first undercover wildlife officer. R.T. told his life story to outdoor writer W.H. “Chip” Gross, who put the rambling narrative into good form for publication by the Kent State University Press.
The story has drama, suspense, personal trauma and plenty of gun play. What TV producer wouldn’t love it?
R.T. is something of a legend in the world of wildlife law enforcement. With little formal training in covert techniques, he successfully infiltrated the ranks of organized poachers from Lake Erie to the Ohio River and gathered evidence that cost the lawbreakers money, gear, vehicles — and sometimes jail time.
Relying on an imposing physical presence and a rich, southeastern Ohio drawl, R.T. buddied with the “bad guys” (as he calls them) and won their confidence.
I met and interviewed R.T. several years ago, but was surprised to learn he has Madison County ties.
Prior to going undercover, he lived in Plain City and worked as the Union County wildlife officer.
Lt. John Swaney, now of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, was a young Union County deputy in those days and often liaisoned with R.T. on wildlife investigations.
“He’s a character,” Lt. Swaney remembered. “To know him is to like him.”
The two would stake out suspected deer “spotlighters” until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes chasing them down in R.T.’s Chevy Caprice.
“He could get that Caprice into farm fields where I couldn’t get a pick-up truck,” Swaney said with a laugh.
Swaney knew R.T. left Union County to work undercover.
A few years after the wildlife officer disappeared from the local landscape, Union County deputies spotted R.T. riding a Harley into Marysville. He was sporting uncharacteristic long hair and a beard, playing the part of his undercover alias, Bob Thomas.
Anxious for an update on his activities without blowing his cover, the deputies stopped and “arrested” R.T. so he could come into the sheriff’s office for a chat, Swaney remembered.
He also recalled R.T.’s passion for protecting Ohio’s wildlife.
“His love for protecting deer was awesome,” Swaney said.
That love emanates from every page of “Poachers Were My Prey.”
It was the reason R.T. often risked life and limb to investigate and prosecute violators of Ohio’s wildlife laws. These laws aim to manage and protect the state’s fish and game for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. To sell the antlers, hides, meat and feathers these animals can be very profitable — especially in this Internet age.
Moreover, wildlife outlaws frequently engage in other illicit activities such as prostitution, drug dealing, dog fighting and food stamp trafficking.
R.T. retired from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife in 2010, after 18 years of busting poaching rings across the state.
“Poachers Were My Prey” chronicles 10 of those investigations, beginning with Operation Clanbake in 1992. The probe targeted two groups (one called “The Clan”) who poached dozens of white-tailed deer from southeast Ohio forests and hundreds of walleye from northwest rivers.
Operation Clanbake was Ohio’s first successful undercover wildlife investigation. Lessons learned carried R.T. and other undercover officers through Operations Redbud, River Sweep, Ego, Tag, Cornerstone and more.
It was lonely, dangerous work, but R.T. loved the job.
He admits it had a down side.
It cost him his marriage and close relationships with his children — something he clearly regrets.
It also occasionally threatened his self-identity as a peace officer as temptations to “cross the line” into criminal behavior increased.
“Everyone has to earn a living somehow in this world, and I chose a profession that I truly enjoyed,” he wrote. “I was determined to help protect our wildlife resources and I believed I could do so more effectively undercover than in uniform.”