Six people are in custody and a seventh is being sought by authorities after California Fish and Wildlife game wardens busted an alleged poaching ring that spanned several years and involved the cooperation of a local grocery market.
They’re called the E-Bike Crew, a group of six men who are believed responsible for dozens of illegal kills of local wildlife.
On Monday, Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko announced that 21 charges have been filed against the men, including allegations of forgery, conspiracy, receiving of stolen property, animal cruelty and possession of an untagged bear.
The investigation into the illegal poaching activities spanned more than a year.
The men involved, identified in public records as Martin M. Bravo, Martin Bravo Sr., Jaime Mendoza Avila, Walfre Lopez y Lopez, Gilberto Lopez Hernandez and Cristian Lopez Perez, are accused of working in concert together to fraudulently obtain California hunting tags, licenses and other entitlements.
The group allegedly worked with the cooperation of Juventino Reyes Guerrero, the operator of a Fish and Wildlife licensing desk located within Lizette’s Market in Piru.
From June 2019 to October 2021, the men allegedly falsified and reprinted hunting tags to allow them to skirt California hunting regulations and harvest more animals than legally allowed. Their motivation, court documents allege, was profit, personal gain and, simply, entertainment.
California has restrictions on the number of animals that can be taken throughout the year. The restrictions exist to protect California’s wildlife species and prevent over-hunting, which can cause devastating results for the local ecosystem.
For example, California law prohibits more than two deer hunting tags to be issued per year.
While printing legal tags for the group, Reyes Guerrero allegedly regularly re-printed tickets, blaming it on poor print quality. In reality, game wardens allege, Guerrero was giving the men involved in the poaching group additional tags.
Each reprinted ticket is tracked through the state’s Automated License Data System. During the time that the alleged crimes took place, no licensed dealer in the state of California had more reprinted tickets than Lizette’s Market, authorities said.
A warden began taking notice of the scheme after coming across the group while on patrol in the Los Padres National Forest in northern Ventura County. The men were riding electric bicycles with their firearms on their person. One of the men received a warning for riding with a live round in the chamber of his gun.
One of the men, who documents identify as Mendoza Avila, spontaneously told the warden that they were part of the “E-Bike Crew from Oxnard.”
They group would ride their bikes across Ventura County and parts of Santa Barbara County, hunting animals and then using their e-bikes and trailers to transport them from where they fell.
Over the next year, that warden would receive several complaints and tips alleging that the same E-Bike Crew was responsible for multiple illegal kills, including some that took place in local wildlife sanctuaries and on a restricted oil field.
On one occasion, a Fish and Wildlife officer contacted several members of the group and found that some of their tags were only partially filled out. State law requires that these tags be filled out completely to prevent the same tag being used for multiple kills. It was just one of the examples of the group playing coy with their hunting tags, authorities allege.
The group was coordinated, wore camouflage and communicated via radio.
But the alleged poachers were not coordinated enough to avoid detection. They were spotted numerous times on camera as they hunted illegally in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, which is closed off to the public because it’s a nesting ground for the endangered California Condor.
Investigators were able to get a clear idea of all the men involved in the poaching activity and later identified the source of their hunting tags as Lizette’s Market.
Additional tags were also found to have been printed and reprinted at a Walmart in Oxnard.
In total, 64 tags were found to have been reprinted and more than 120 tags were never reported.
Reyes Guerrero, who operates Lizette’s Market, allegedly was printing and reprinting the tags under his stepdaughter’s name. When contacted, the stepdaughter told investigators she had no idea about the operation.
It was later found that the poaching group and their associates accounted for 100% of all reprints at Lizette’s Market, Fish and Wildlife said.
On Dec. 8, 2021, search warrants were issued at locations across Ventura County that were associated with members of the E-Bike Crew.
During the search, officials recovered dozens of trophies, antlers and animal skulls that were believed to have been harvested illegally. Among them was a skull of a mountain lion, whom Martin M. Bravo allegedly tried to pass off as a bobcat skull. Hunting mountain lions is strictly prohibited in California.
At Bravo’s home, they also recovered metal slashing weapons that can be affixed to the feet of chickens, which are often associated with cock fighting, another illegal activity in California.
Bravo also allegedly admitted to killing a bear that was in the process of being taxidermized. The bear was never reported.
Freezers that were searched were also found to be filled with various animal meats, including both deer and bear — the bulk of which was believed to be obtained illegally.
Lizette’s Market was also among the locations searched. Physical and electronic evidence of the reprinting scheme was obtained during that search, officials said.
During interviews with the accused members of the E-Bike crew, many of the participants admitted to killing more than the legally allowed number of animals, improperly using the hunting tags and discussing how to get reprinted tags. Several of them also admitted to exchanging and bartering illegally obtained animal parts and meat.
The owners of Lizette’s Market denied knowingly participating in the scheme, court documents state.
Review of text message and WhatsApp conversations also shed light on the process and revealed many of those involved in the scheme discussed the illegal activity openly with one another.
In the summary findings of the investigation, Fish and Wildlife officials allege that the group was responsible for an undetermined number of illegal kills over the years, including dozens of deer and several bears, and either simply didn’t report the kills or used fraudulent tags in an attempt to cover their tracks.
“With the reprint scheme enacted, the Wildlife Trafficking Organization (WTO) was allowed to go into the surrounding wilderness areas in and around Ventura County and provided the means to illegally kill any game animal at any given time with a safeguard in place in the event the group was confronted by law enforcement. The execution of this scheme has resulted in a significant loss to wildlife resources within the county, the deprivation of lawful hunting opportunity for law abiding citizens, and the illegal commercialization of native wildlife for personal gain or profit,” the arrest warrant states.
Martin M. Bravo and his father, Martin Bravo Sr., Jaime Mendoza Avila, Gilberto Lopez Hernandez, Cristian Lopez Perez and Juventino Reyes Guerrero were arraigned on Monday and remain in custody with bail set at $200,000. Walfre Lopez y Lopez has not yet been located and has an active arrest warrant.
The men are due back in court on Wednesday in Ventura County Superior Court.