False statements about bear escapes, a stray bobcat, euthanized eagle among violations investigated
By Gwendolyn Craig
A missing bobcat, undisclosed birds and a cover-up of failures in a black bear enclosure are among reasons state officials moved to pull a wildlife refuge operator’s licenses and deny the applications of her successors, new records obtained by the Adirondack Explorer show.
Wendy Hall, co-owner along with her husband, Stephen Hall, of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington, surrendered her remaining state wildlife licenses this summer after the Department of Environmental Conservation said it would revoke them. Wendy Hall was the sole license holder at the refuge.
On Aug. 31, the DEC denied the license applications of two employees listed as Hall’s designated agents, Hanna Cromie and Donald Tourtellot. Cromie, the general manager of the refuge, was “directly implicated in many of the violations and other unlawful conduct,” the department wrote. Tourtellot also worked at the refuge during the time of many of the violations, the DEC said.
In testimony submitted to the DEC, Cromie and Tourtellot admitted to deceiving regulators about how two black bears escaped their enclosure in 2019, records show.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Cromie declined to comment, but requested the Adirondack Explorer email questions. Cromie did not respond. The Explorer could not find contact information for Tourtellot.
With no one licensed at the AWR now, staff and the Nature Walks Conservation Society — a nonprofit connected to the refuge — are finding new homes for about a dozen state-regulated animals. The refuge’s social media posts show about half of the remaining animals have been relocated. DEC records show all the animals have found placements. AWR is closed to the public.
Stephen Hall said two other people, who were not working at the refuge during the time of the violations, have applied for licenses.
“The Wildlife Refuge is not going anywhere,” Stephen Hall wrote in an email on Wednesday.
Years of violations
Since 2015, DEC regulators have tried to bring Wendy Hall and her team into compliance. A July 29, 2020 email from the head of the DEC’s special licenses unit, Joseph Therrien, indicated the department had run out of patience and was considering the fate of the entire facility.
At that time, the department was investigating what happened to a bobcat named Yayo. A whistleblower had reported the educational animal had escaped, while Stephen and Wendy Hall had claimed it had died.
Therrien wrote to DEC colleagues then that the alleged escape of the bobcat, should it prove true, would add to a growing list of other animal escapes including that of wolves and two bears. Complaints had been filed against the refuge, too, about staff walking wolves and a lynx on leashes on public roads. A red fox bit a child, Therrien wrote.
“All of these animals are defined as animals dangerous to the health and welfare of the public,” Therrien wrote. “We may find that we soon have no other option then to proceed with revocation of Ms. Hall’s exhibition licenses and the removal of all licensed animals from the facility.”
Among records sought by the Explorer, one batch from the DEC details the March 2019 escape of two bears, Ahote and Luvey.
Wendy Hall and husband Stephen Hall testified in a written DEC deposition that the bears had escaped by toppling a tree. An employee, Chris Mattern, testified the same.
Cromie and Tourtellot gave the DEC investigators a different story.
The morning of March 29, 2019, Cromie discovered the bears were missing, she wrote in a DEC deposition. She and Tourtellot spent the day looking for them. When Cromie came back to the refuge on March 30, 2019, Cromie said Stephen Hall wanted to meet “and figure out what our story was going to be.”
Stephen Hall told Tourtellot and other staff to repair part of the bear enclosure, Tourtellot wrote in his deposition.
“Steve decided he wanted to pull one of the trees over to make it look like that was how the bears got out of the enclosure,” Cromie said. “Chris (Mattern) and I were not happy with this, but it was clear that Steve was not going to let us go back out til we took care of the tree first.”
Cromie and Tourtellot said they used a ratchet strap lassoed around the tree to pull it down and break it. Cromie said Stephen Hall approved the look of the broken tree before the team returned to looking for the bears.
“I regret that I didn’t call the DEC from the get go,” Cromie said.
In an email on April 3, 2019 to DEC staff, Stephen Hall said he wanted “to amend my statement with one detail, which was inaccurate.” Stephen Hall wrote paragraphs about Chris Mattern’s role as bear specialist in charge of the enclosure. Stephen Hall said he had made his own fixes to “vulnerabilities” in the enclosure and that Mattern was no longer working at the refuge.
“Wendy and I basically panicked, as the ambassador bears are a huge part of our education, and therefore money raising programs, and we feared that the DEC would hold us responsible, and not allow us to keep bears, even if we got our two bears back,” Stephen Hall wrote. “I suggested we try to make it look as though an act of god caused this, and Chris (Mattern) suggested the bent tree solution. I realize in retrospect that it was unfair to have team members be put in a position where they’d have to sign statements which might contain falsehood(s). In fact, it didn’t occur to me that we’d be signing statements at all, figuring the focus would be on getting the bears back.”
The Explorer reached out to Mattern Tuesday morning, but did not receive a reply.
In an email on Wednesday to the Explorer, Stephen Hall wrote, “Did we ever lie to the DEC? Yes, and their constant bullying tactics make this an almost unavoidable tactic.” Stephen Hall said the bent tree plan was his own idea and meant “to save the job of the young man in charge of the bears.”
Birds, an unaccounted eagle and more violations
At an inspection on April 5, 2019, state and federal investigators found 20 animals, including birds, on display in cages without the proper licenses. The state issued a notice of violation to Wendy Hall, which required her to transfer, release or euthanize the animals.
While the Halls appeared to comply with the order, they racked up new violations by taking on more animals and birds without licenses, DEC reports show.
At another inspection in October 2019, reports show Wendy Hall was housing a black vulture but did not disclose that to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or DEC. Hall told officers she had forgotten about it. Investigators asked Wendy Hall if there were any animals inside an enclosed building on the refuge. Wendy Hall told them no. They asked her to open the building. When she did, they saw a juvenile bald eagle inside. Wendy Hall said she didn’t know about the eagle, the report read, but “it was discovered that the eagle had already been fed by staff twice earlier in the week and was due for another feeding that afternoon.”
In November 2019, USFWS revoked Wendy Hall’s migratory bird licenses for numerous federal violations, including housing birds meant for rehabilitation and release with educational birds. The federal agency declined an Explorer request for records about its inquiry into the refuge, saying any documents generated represent “a law enforcement record for a pending or prospective investigation and releasing it could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
In January 2020, DEC and USFWS conducted another inspection and found Wendy Hall to be in possession of nearly two dozen birds without proper state and federal permits. At the end of January, USFWS denied Wendy Hall’s request for reconsideration of her bird licenses.
At the end of February, a former refuge volunteer, Melissa Sheeley, contacted USFWS. Sheeley said during one of the inspections in 2019, she feared Wendy Hall had not brought officials across the street where another bald eagle was housed. After searching public records, Sheeley discovered Wendy Hall had reported only one of two bald eagles in her possession to the federal agency.
“I don’t want to be associated with her negligent actions,” Sheeley wrote in an email to USFWS.
Sheeley also signed a statement alleging the refuge would change animals’ names to avoid paperwork and avoid turning over animals to other rehabilitators.
Special Agent Ryan Bessey with the USFWS’s law enforcement, emailed Therrien and others that he spoke with Sheeley at the beginning of March 2020 and learned of the death of an eagle at the refuge dating to November 2019. He wrote: “Wendy (with convincing from her husband, Steve) had a bald eagle euthanized by a vet and buried ‘hidden on the property.’ The same eagle had been moved across the street approximately one week before the fall inspection and was euthanized approximately two weeks after the inspection.”
Officers later inspected the refuge and dug up the eagle’s remains, records show.
In an email dated Nov. 26, 2020 to the DEC, Wendy Hall said the buried eagle was “a careless mistake, not a true criminal violation.”
Connor Schmitz, a former refuge employee, told the department in a deposition earlier this year that he believed an injured bald eagle was euthanized and buried “to keep the undocumented eagle quiet from the DEC.”
In an email to Therrien, Schmitz accused Cromie and Alex Hall of improper handling of two coyotes. Alex Hall, the son of Stephen and Wendy Hall, is listed as a general manager, animal handler and groundskeeper at AWR. Schmitz also provided the DEC with video footage of Cromie planning to make a false statement to regulators that a peregrine falcon in her care had died overnight. That video was also supplied to the Explorer in response to the news organization’s records request.
“I don’t mean to make this personal, but these people are not fit to care for these animals,” Schmitz wrote.
Alex Hall did not return the Explorer’s phone call requesting comment. Reached by email, Sheeley and Schmitz declined to comment.
Records show Schmitz had also provided a letter to the board of Adirondack Wildlife Inc., the nonprofit that the Halls started, outlining his concerns on how the Halls and Cromie were running the refuge. The nonprofit board has since split with the refuge.
Samantha Pope, who is identified as the board’s president in 2020 financial records, said “We don’t have a relationship with the Halls at this time.” Pope did not respond to additional calls and emails requesting comment.
At the end of July 2020, Sheeley and Schmitz also contacted DEC about the stray bobcat Yayo. Maxwell Nicols, an environmental conservation officer, wrote a report about his investigation. Nicols spoke with Sheeley. The Halls had told her the bobcat had escaped. She had seen a live animal trap set outside the enclosure.
Nicols interviewed Stephen Hall, who told him Yayo had died and been buried.
Stephen Hall, in an interview with the Explorer this month and in past testimony provided to the DEC, attacked the credibility of Sheeley and Schmitz, pointing to a vehicle accident he said Schmitz was involved in with the refuge’s truck. He did not deny to the Explorer that the bobcat had escaped and that he had made a false statement to regulators.
What happened to Yayo? The DEC does not know.
Stephen Hall, who has written some pieces for the Explorer’s sister site the Adirondack Almanack, told the Explorer that Wendy Hall thought she found its remains, but he believed the fur she found was from a deer.
“Again, what does this have to do with what is good for the citizens and students of New York?” Stephen Hall said in an email. “They will always steer you back to Wendy, who is already out of the picture. Ask your DEC contacts whether education and the economy are important to New Yorkers.”
Wendy Hall, in a May 3, 2021 letter to DEC, said Sheeley and Schmitz had set her up so that they could seize control of the refuge.
“While much of this is accurate, there are plenty of inaccuracies,” Wendy Hall wrote about her former employees’ reports. “Much of this goes back many years, and I have since totally retired, leaving the refuge in totally capable hands. … Connor and Melissa had an agenda, and while Connor was an excellent worker, his behavior was totally nefarious.”
In a letter to Commissioner Basil Seggos on May 10, Stephen Hall wrote that he and Wendy Hall admitted to most of the DEC violations.
“There are some inaccuracies in the claims, some seriously manipulated information from disgruntled former employees,” he wrote. “Wendy is guilty of having an enormous heart in her desire to rescue every suffering animal she can, while not following through with the proper paperwork to document such rescues.”
Stephen Hall particularly highlighted a DEC violation involving a bear improperly tagged. He believed that was the DEC’s fault. He did not contest violations concerning the escapes and false statements; instead he has stressed that the AWR’s place in the community as an educational and economic hub should mean more to the DEC than their violations.
Stephen Hall said Wendy Hall is suffering from cancer and is no longer involved with the AWR. They still live on the property. Wendy Hall recorded a statement posted on YouTube, calling on the DEC to allow Cromie and Alex Hall to run the refuge. She called it “unfair” that the two were being branded with her violations.
On Aug. 30, Cromie emailed Therrien updating him on how the transfer of the refuge’s animals was going. She inquired on her own state license applications.
“In all seriousness, this transfer would be in the best interest of the animals being discussed–our top priority,” Cromie wrote.
On Aug. 31, the DEC issued Cromie a denial letter. Therrien said the Halls were still heavily involved with the refuge based on the fact that they reside on the 50-acre complex, and from DEC’s observations during a July 30 inspection. At that inspection, Stephen Hall was found giving an illegal educational presentation with animals under Wendy Hall’s surrendered licenses. Therrien outlined 10 instances of Cromie’s alleged involvement in violations, including making false statements. He also included how the two black bears had escaped a second time in 2021.
“Denial of your license applications is necessary to prevent further violations at AWR and to protect the health and welfare of the public and native wildlife in New York State,” Therrien wrote.