Working in any branch of law enforcement is a dangerous way to earn a pay check, but for those who don the badge of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden the inherent risks of crossing paths with trouble extend in just about every direction imaginable.
That’s not to say a game warden’s job is more dangerous than any other officer who is sworn to protect and to serve. However, it’s a heck of a lot different because their duties are so large in scope and sometimes lead them down bizarre trails to unthinkable situations.
Game wardens are commissioned to protect Texas’ vast wildlife, fisheries and other natural resources. Additionally, they also are responsible for policing about 3 million people who hunt and fish in 254 counties that range in size from 286 to nearly 6,200 square miles.
The job title also means enforcing water safety laws on public waters, the Parks and Wildlife Code, all TPWD regulations, the Texas Penal Code and selected statutes and regulations applicable to clean air and water, hazardous materials and human health.
On top of all that, game wardens respond to natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tornados, perform searches for missing persons and drowning victims. On top of that, game wardens assist other state and federal agencies including the U.S Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Border Patrol with special border security operations.
Shifts don’t exist in this business, and there is nothing routine about it. You never know from one day from to the next whether you’ll be in the woods or on the water, or what you’ll be doing while you’re out there.
One morning you’re conducting license or boat safety checks on an area reservoir. A few hours later, you’re on the heels of deer poacher, not knowing if you are dealing with a youngster in need of an attitude adjustment or a career crook with a nasty rap sheet, several outstanding warrants and zero respect for life, much less the law.
The latter can be particularly taxing when the chase leads to an area so remote that it is impossible to communicate via radio or cell phone. Calling for back up isn’t an option when that happens.
Like many of Texas’s 500 plus game wardens, Grahame Jones knows those dangerous situations and others that game wardens are sometimes faced with all too well.
Jones is a 25-year veteran game warden who began is career in Tyler County in southeast Texas. He now heads up Special Operations for TPWD’s Law Enforcement Division out of the agency’s Austin headquarters.
“It makes no difference whether you are dealing with a group of poachers in a remote area at night or working search and rescue or a recovery in swift water, things can get really dicey out there in a hurry,” said Jones. “The geographic location combined with the weather and other elements can certainly complicate things, too.
“Game wardens sometimes find themselves alone in a very remote place, sometimes in rough terrain with no ability to communicate by radio to the local sheriff’s office and with very limited cell phone service. A lot the time they are on the water. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death for Texas game wardens, and we take water safety very seriously.”
Donnie Puckett of Lufkin agreed with Jones regarding the inherent dangers that game wardens face in the field on daily basis. Puckett is a retired TPWD Captain game warden who spent his 30-year career in Angelina County. He has seen the occupation’s dark side more than once.
Two of the wardens he worked with—Barry Decker and Bruce Hill—tragically drowned while patrolling after dark at Lake Murvaul in Panola County on Memorial Day weekend in May 1990. The officers were thrown from their boat when it hit a stump.
“We’ve had other game wardens murdered by night hunters, killed in head-on collisions and murdered on the side of the road while trying to help somebody out,” Puckett said. “What’s the most dangerous part of the job? It’s all dangerous.
“You’re a one-person unit. Sometimes you’re dealing with people who are carrying firearms, often in isolated places, where back-up is a long way off. Think about getting into a confrontation with a poacher 20 miles up the Neches River. It could turn into one of those deals where whoever has the biggest stick wins.”
Puckett recalled one incident from his tenure when a Houston County game warden was called to a rural location on a poaching call. When the warden arrived at the suspect’s house, he found the carcass of a deer hanging in a tree.
Puckett said the violator came out of the house and began shooting at the game warden with a .22 caliber rifle. The warden took cover behind his Dodge Ram Charger, and the violator kept on firing at him and his vehicle. The warden returned fire with a 12 gauge and ended the ordeal.
“The list of potential dangers goes on and on,” Puckett said. “The elements and environmental hazards game wardens face while doing their jobs just adds to it. One of my wardens got hit on the boot by a timber rattler, another one got sent to the hospital with a copperhead bite, and another one got Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite.”
There was a time not so long ago in deep southeast Texas when run-ins between game wardens and deer/dog hunters went down on a fairly regular basis. The altercations—often heated—occurred because many deer/dog hunters were unwilling to hang up their leashes after the practice of using dogs to course deer was outlawed in 1990.
Game wardens were verbally threatened. Some had nails placed in their driveways. One Newton County warden even had his home burned to the ground.
Thankfully, the squabbling between dog hunters and lawmen has since subsided. However, the tensions between illegal netters and longliners targeting reef fish, red snapper, red drum and sharks along Texas coast, have not.
“The vessels are coming from Mexico, and our game wardens are routinely coming in contact with them,” Jones said. “These people will rarely stop when they are approached. It’s a pursuit every single time. These people don’t want to be stopped, and they use every available means they can to escape capture. They run from us 99 percent of the time, and that means we have to come in contact with that vessel.
“We’ve found bales of marijuana along with loads of shark fins and red snapper onboard these boats, all at the same time. Sometimes our wardens have to jump into the vessel to get it stopped. There’s a lot going on when that happens, and it creates a very dangerous situation.”
To illustrate, Jones pointed to an altercation that occurred a couple of years ago in California. It involved illegal netters and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“One of these vessels actually rammed into a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, and one of the coast guardsmen was killed,” he said.
To date, 18 Texas game wardens have paid the ultimate price, losing their lives in the course of duty. Each death occurred under different circumstances and conditions that exemplify the risks they take when they put on their badge and gun belt each day.
TPWD maintains a Memorial Plaza in commemoration of game wardens who died while doing their jobs. A Texas Game Warden Memorial Ceremony is held at the plaza each year to honor those wardens and their families (see the sidebar, lower left).
TPWD’s Memorial Plaza
The following is a list of Texas Game Wardens who died in the line of duty, and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, according to TPWD’s website:
• Joe Williams and Harry Raymond – Both officers washed away in a hurricane in 1919 while trying to reach their boat RELIANCE in Aransas Bay to put out more anchors.
• Dawson Richard Murchison – While patrolling for poaching activities on the King Ranch in 1938, was murdered by a poacher near the site currently known as Murchison Lake. The lake is near the county line between Kleberg and Jim Wells counties. The murderer fled into Mexico and was never brought to trial.
• R.M. Wynne – Was killed in a car accident near Amarillo in 1948.
• Gus Engeling – A warden and a biologist, Engeling was murdered by a duck poacher in Anderson County in 1951 near the current site of the Wildlife Management Area which bears his name. The poacher was apprehended, convicted of murder and executed in the electric chair.
• laude Keller – Was killed in a plane crash in 1956 while patrolling the Laguna Madre for illegal netting activities.
• J.D. Murphree – Was murdered by a duck poacher in Jasper County in 1963. The murderer was apprehended, convicted of manslaughter and given a prison term.
• Joe Evans – Was killed in a car accident while patrolling in Young County in 1965.
• loyd Gustin – Drowned on Somerville Lake in 1968 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat he was riding in capsized and sank.
• Ronnie Germany – Was murdered by a poacher in San Augustine County in 1973 while patrolling a remote river bottom area. The poacher was caught, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison.
• James Daughtrey – Was killed in a head-on collision with suspected night hunters while patrolling near the Nueces River in McMullen County in 1978.
• Barry Decker and Bruce Hill – Both officers drowned while on patrol on Lake Murvaul in Panola County in 1990.
• ike Pauling – Stopped to offer roadside assistance in Port Arthur in 2001. A driver sped off with Pauling partially inside his vehicle, and the warden was thrown to the roadway and killed. The driver was convicted of aggravated assault on a public servant. He received 55 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
• Wes Wagstaff – Was killed in a head-on collision while responding to an Operation Game Thief call in Hardin County on Aug. 5, 2003.
—story by AUTHOR