by Tom Melody
Once upon a time, Jim Petrasek recalled, some of Cleveland’s very best hit men killed time, so to speak, by rabbit hunting in Lorain County.
Or maybe by driving along its rural roads and shooting doves off power lines.
Practice, after all, makes perfect, and these guys were darned good at what they did. Good hunters, too, probably.
At any rate, Petrasek was the Lorain County wildlife officer at the time, 1976, and guys who hunted rabbits without a license and shot doves off power lines got tickets.
So it was with these two guys from Cleveland — and he remembers with remarkable vividness the day he walked them out of the woods, the offender in front of him and the other behind him, a shotgun in hand.
“All I knew at the time was that they were brothers from Cleveland out for a rabbit hunt, and one of them didn’t have a license,” Petrasek said.
Nor did he know any more about them when he encountered them shortly thereafter popping the doves.
That changed, though, boy, did it ever, when his superior, Max Duckworth, received a bulletin from federal authorities later on asking if any of his wildlife officers had come up missing.
Seems one of the lads from Cleveland had been arrested and he had bragged –falsely so, as it turned out — that, among other things, he had killed a wildlife officer.
“I’m standing there putting two and two together and realizing that I had arrested the guy not once, but twice,” Petrasek said the other day.
Remarkably, perhaps, he is still standing and on Aug. 31 will retire as the chief of law enforcement for the Division of Wildlife in Northeast Ohio.
It has been an interesting 25 years, said Petrasek, 50. And, yes, he is looking forward to retirement for all sorts of reasons.
“This year, for instance, I’ll be going into the woods during deer season for the enjoyment of it, not with the idea I might have to put the handcuffs on somebody,” Petrasek said.
Maybe he’ll go to Harrison County, a rough-and-tumble place with lots of deer where he once was an investigator.
“It’s amazing how things have changed in what amounts to such a short time,” Petrasek said. “Used to be that, if you made a deer-related arrest, it was an event, because there weren’t all that many deer. The word would get out, and two or three other officers would come to the house and celebrate. As I said, it was an event.”
It also was an event to hear, let alone see, a Canada goose.
“We’d run outside and stare at the sky, if we thought we heard one,” Petrasek said.
Now, of course, it’s better to run inside when you hear a flock of geese headed your way, and deer are regular visitors to vegetable and flower gardens in the cities and suburbs alike.
“Used to be we had to deal with people who illegally killed animals to eat and for profit,” Petrasek said. “Now we’re dealing with a public that wants to kill things because they have become nuisances. It’s kinda odd how attitudes have evolved.”
But then investigative methods likewise have evolved, he said, and that has been good.
“You’d have a lump of suspicious venison, and you’d ask a guy how many deer had been ground up to make that lump,” Petrasek said.
“The guy, of course, would tell you only one, a really big one, and you’d just know darned well that wasn’t true. Proving it, however, could be another matter.
“Nowadays, you ship that venison to a wildlife lab on the West Coast and you’ll be able to learn precisely how many deer were ground up,” Petrasek said. “Makes an officer’s life considerably easier.”
Never, though, is it easy for an officer’s wife, he emphasized, and that is another reason why he is glad his time to go has arrived.
“All of the guys receive death threats over the years,” Petrasek said. “Officers for the most part get used to it, but the wives, well, that is another matter, and that’s understandable.”
There comes a time when enough is enough, Petrasek said, and for him, that time is now.
He is pleased that Lake Erie has come back to life and industrial stream pollution has abated during his watch. He is not pleased that agricultural stream pollution remains a problem, especially so in Wayne County, he said.
He laughs when he sorts through the characters, both good and bad, he has encountered in the field.
“Believe it or not, I’ve arrested three generations of the same family,” he said. “I guess some things just become family traditions.”