Natural Forensics

Beverly Villarreal, TPWD Law Enforcement, Forensics

TPWD Forensis Lab (Real Media)

On The Job
Texas Parks and Wildlife In Action

Forensic Lab Helps Solve Wildlife Crimes

Beverly Villarreal (left) and Loraine Fries check results of a test at the forensic lab in San Marcos, a joint effort by Inland Fisheries and Law Enforcement.
Beverly Villarreal examines samples which have been collected and stored in a freezer at the forensic lab for comparison tests.
A fancy Houston restaurant was offering alligator snapping turtle soup to its customers. Game wardens, concerned that the alligator snapping turtle, despite its protection as a threatened species in Texas, was being dropped in a soup pot, collected samples and sent them to TPWD's forensic lab in San Marcos. The results were surprising.

It turns out there was no turtle in the turtle soup at all. It was alligator meat. An employee apparently was supplying alligator meat to the restaurant while charging for the more expensive turtle meat, which he said he was getting legally from Louisiana. Waiter, what's this alligator doing in my soup?

This is just one of numerous cases handled by the forensic lab located at the A. E. Wood Fish Hatchery in San Marcos. The tests it conducts on fish and wildlife have been helping game wardens prove their charges since the lab began operations in 1985.

When game wardens file charges, they have to be prepared to prove that the meat they have seized is out-of-season white-tailed deer, not goat as the suspect claims. They have to know if the fish filets offered for sale are legal farm-raised red drum, or illegally caught wild red drum. Is the blood in the back of a pickup truck evidence that a deer was poached, or that a squirrel was shot?

To Loraine Fries and Beverly Villarreal at the forensic lab, the answers to these questions, as Sherlock Holmes is fond of telling Dr. Watson, are elementary. Both have master's degrees in biology.

Villarreal said she and Fries leave the detective work to the game wardens, but the lab provides scientific support. Often, the evidence from the lab is so conclusive that suspects plead guilty rather than face a trial.

"We help protect the wildlife by aiding in the conviction of perpetrators of wildlife crimes, but we also help to protect the innocent who really did shoot a squirrel and not a white-tailed deer as the game warden suspects," Villarreal said. "Frequently, just the existence of the lab helps because a suspect will confess to the crime when the game warden says the samples are being sent to a lab for analysis. This saves time and court costs."

The lab was started as a fisheries genetics lab in 1985, but game wardens soon began using it for tests. "The first case involved a deer poacher who claimed the deer was a javelina," said Fries, who helped start the lab. "A blood sample brought in by the warden matched some deer blood, and when the defendant was told, he decided to plead guilty."

Law Enforcement hired Villarreal in 1989 as a part-time employee while she was attending Southwest Texas State University, but the job became full-time shortly after she graduated. Law Enforcement shares the fisheries lab and has either purchased or received donated equipment. Wardens also collected samples of blood, hair and tissue from various species so that Fries and Villarreal would have a reference collection used for comparison tests. The lab gets about 50 cases a year from Law Enforcement.

"It's a real success story where two divisions have worked together," said Law Enforcement Director Charles Hensley.

The lab identifies different species through isoelectric focusing of proteins. It uses profiles of fatty acids to determine whether a fish is wild or farm-raised. In addition, it can tell whether meat is fresh or previously frozen, thus determining its age and whether it was killed in or out of season.

"The violator no longer bluffs and the game warden no longer bluffs," Hensley said. "It has been a big help."

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