A day after a 19-year-old man pleaded no contest in the killing of 15 Laysan albatrosses as part of a plea deal with the state, state Department of Land and Natural Resources chair Suzanne Case expressed concern about the message such a deal sends to the public regarding protections for endangered wildlife.
Christian Gutierrez, a 2015 Punahou School graduate, pleaded no contest to one of 15 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty against him, misdemeanor theft, petty misdemeanor criminal property damage and two counts of prohibited activities regarding wildlife and in a natural area reserve.
The killings occurred in December 2015 when Guitierrez, on break from New York University, and former schoolmates were camping at Kaena Point.
“This crime is absolutely heinous,” said Case, in a statement released on Friday. “It combines appalling animal cruelty with long-lasting devastation of a breeding population of vulnerable and protected majestic seabirds. Unfortunately, DLNR was not consulted with respect to the plea bargain in this case.
“Our wildlife managers and enforcement officers work very hard to protect the Kaʿena albatross colony,” she said. “We take great responsibility for the welfare of these Laysan albatross and to the public who cares about them deeply. DLNR is watching this case very closely to see if justice will be met.”
As part of his plea deal, Gutierrez agreed to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of others.
Gutierrez faces maximum one-year jail terms for the misdemeanors, 30 days for the petty misdemeanors, and fines.
His lawyer, Myles Breiner, has asked the court to defer the pleas, thereby allowing Gutierrez the opportunity to avoid conviction. Circuit Judge Jeannette Castagnetti will decide whether to defer the pleas or sentence Gutierrez in June.
The Laysan albatross population at Kaena Point suffered losses that went far beyond the death of the 15 adult birds, Case said. She noted that 17 nests were also destroyed in December 2015, resulting in the direct destruction of 11 albatross eggs and the loss of six others that no longer had a parent to incubate them.
“With 32 live albatrosses lost, and a proven reproductive potential of each adult bird that can live for 60-plus years and rear a chick every other year, the combined effect on the population has been calculated in the hundreds for these large, protected birds,” Case said.
The case is being tried in one of Hawaii’s newly established environmental courts. The courts were created in 2014 under Act 218 and began operation in July 2015. According to a Hawaii State Judiciary profile, the courts have broad jurisdiction over cases involving water, forests, streams, beaches, air, and mountains, along with terrestrial and marine life.
“The tone this case sets can have far reaching impacts on the security of our wildlife and natural resources,” Case said in the statement. “It is critical that the outcome of this case sends a strong message to the public, that violations of laws protecting our vulnerable native wildlife and acts of illegal take and destruction will not be tolerated.”