Just a few years ago, Earl and Janice Peck hoped that they would celebrate this Christmas with a flourishing business and a growing family. But thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service (USFWS) and the State of North Carolina, those dreams now lie in ruins.
Earl and Janice moved from Connecticut to Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1991 to look after Earl's mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Despite his excellent record of raising money to support disabled individuals, Earl had trouble finding work because he isn't college-educated.
Earl decided to use his considerable entrepreneurial skills and start his own business. Since he loves to cook, Earl established International Home Cooking, a mail order food business that specialized in filling a wide variety of orders from restaurants and individuals all over the country. Janice, who Earl had just married, invested her entire life savings in the business. Earl sold alligator, rattlesnake, emu, lion and even camel meat. Everything was perfectly legal. He registered his business with the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office and obtained the necessary permits from the county and city governments. All the meat he sold he purchased from established suppliers that submitted to inspections either by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the state.1
Within months, Earl was getting so many orders that he had to move out of his home and rent commercial office space. Earl took care of advertising and marketing while Janice, his silent partner, took care of bookkeeping and other office-related duties. By 1995, International Home Cooking was on track to record $100,000 in sales.
As Christmas approached that year, Earl and Janice had a lot to be thankful for and a lot of hopes as well. Earl and Janice planned to have a baby.
Then their nightmare started.
In November 1995, USFWS agents accosted Earl, detained him and ransacked his home in a SWAT-like raid. The USFWS and the State of North Carolina charged Earl with violating laws protecting endangered species after he sold black bear meat to an undercover agent.2
Earl's business fell apart. Unable to meet his orders, vendors and suppliers began demanding payment of outstanding bills. Says Earl, "We were going into debt very hard and very fast." That Christmas was torture. "For all I knew I was going to be hauled off to jail on Christmas day," says Earl. "My doctor had to give me tranquilizers to cope with the stress."
Earl and Janice postponed having a baby.
But the USFWS had targeted an innocent man. Earl's alleged crime was actually a perfectly legal transaction. Earl purchased the bear meat from a USDA-inspected South Dakota supplier. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission argued that he was breaking a state law that forbids the sale of bear and deer meat. But that law was aimed at protecting bear and deer native to the state, not from elsewhere. Even the state Department of Agriculture said that Earl did not break any law.3
That was also the conclusion of the federal government. In May 1996, the U.S. Attorney's office sent Earl a letter informing him that he wouldn't be prosecuted due to "insufficient federal interest."4
However, that was not enough to save his business. To this day, Earl cannot reopen his business because state officials will not give him a definitive answer about what kind of meats he can sell. "It's ridiculous. There are restaurants and former business competitors selling meats the state claimed I was selling illegally, yet nothing is done to them," says Earl.
This Christmas, Earl and Janice do not plan to exchange gifts.
"We have been spending the last five years trying to pay
off business debts," says Earl. "It's iffy that we
will even buy a tree."
From happier Christmases, Earl fondly remembers the gifts Janice gave him, such as power tools for his carpentry hobby. Now, Earl uses those tools to provide a living for himself and his wife by doing odd jobs around the neighborhood such as painting, mowing lawns and fixing plumbing.
Earl would dearly love to hold the government accountable for the injustice inflicted on him and Janice, but state and federal officials consider the case closed. Not even a sympathetic U.S. senator's office can do anything for the couple.
Earl and Janice have not given up all hope, however.
This Christmas, one of Earl's projects is to make a baby cradle.
1 Nikihl Deogun, "Bear Facts: A Bust Has People Asking
'What's the Beef,'" The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1996.
3 The 2000 National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, The National Center For Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., 2000.
John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public
Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. He can be
reached at [email protected].