As poaching arrests go, it couldn't have gotten much easier for Lance Cpl. Jeff Day. Or quieter.
It was plenty dark in the Dungannon Plantation near Hollywood a couple weeks ago. The suspect had worked himself as far back in the thick brush as you could get, back where getting near him without making noise would be nearly impossible.
But the S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife officer whirred up almost without a sound. He had an electric bike. When the flashlight turned on, the suspect just raised his hands.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I thought I would have heard your truck."
The e-bike was donated to DNR recently as a demonstration model by Day's cousin, who owns a Pedego dealership in Aiken. A bicycle with an auxiliary electric motor, it pedals and can be shifted into gears to help push the peddles. It makes no more noise than a kid's bike would.
The bike is outfitted with thick off-road tires. The cousin, Coker Day, considers it an alternative to four-wheel, off-road vehicles because you can get to the deer blind quietly. Jeff Day immediately realized something else.
"That's the biggest part of this job, sneaking up on people (hunting illegally)," he said. "The body is a well-oiled machine, but if you can get there faster and quieter — that machine is better."
Day, at 33, is an 11-year wildlife officer, a graduate of The Citadel. He is lean and crewcut, talkative with a mischievous sense of humor. He loves his job. The Dungannon arrest came within days of the bike finding its way into the bed of his truck.
The bust is a tale of its own.
Dungannon is known as a heritage preserve, a wood stork rookery that is a birding destination. But the 640-acre enclave of woods and swamp on the S.C. Highway 162 roadside is also a Wildlife Management Area, where hunting for deer by bow is allowed.
Dungannon doesn't have a lot of deer, but it's surrounded by private hunt club lands that do.
Day has learned to eye the sedans and SUVs parked there as he drives past on patrol. Last year, the white work truck with the oversize, dirty tires stood out. Hunting gear and an empty crossbow case were on the seat inside. Day worked his way down the path until he spotted a Red Bull can up against the treeline.
To most people, that's just litter. To Day it was a marker, something somebody had placed where he threaded through the brush to set a deer blind. It was a Sunday, when hunting isn't allowed in the management areas. The first arrest was made.
A month later the truck was back at Dungannon at sunset, and night hunting isn't allowed. This time the blind was farther back, far more obscured. Day took his night-vision googles and found the suspect by the glow of a red hunting light.
A year later, the truck was back again. Day shakes his head to think about it. This time the officer had the e-bike. He already knew how valuable it was: While he was stopped on an earlier ride through Dungannon, four deer came out of the woods behind him, almost within reach, looking the other way.
"When you can spook a deer, sneak up on them, that's impressive," he said.
This time the suspect was way back. The quietly whirring bike made covering more ground down a path a piece of cake. Day found a bicycle the suspect had ridden from the truck leaning against a tree off to the side, covered up in leaves and brush. Day leaned his bike up against it and waited.
In the goggles he watched the hunter's light approach him on a path, swinging side to side, suggesting what wildlife officers call "window shopping." That's spotting a deer, trying to freeze it by shining the light in the eyes to shoot it. The suspect was carrying a crossbow, but he had not technically been caught hunting.
He had, though, ranged off the management area onto private hunt club land, Day said. The charge is called trespassing to hunt. Up came the flashlight and up went the hands.
"I'm sorry," the suspect said. Then he got a glimpse of the vehicle that snuck up on him. "Where did you get that bike?"