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Belly up: One fish, three men, and the long arm of the law38:26
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Man Moving Underwater With Body (Guiga Pirá/Getty Images)
Man Moving Underwater With Body (Guiga Pirá/Getty Images)

When three friends went on a rum-fueled rampage one night deep in the Nevada desert, they never expected the trouble they would find themselves in a week later.

The men broke into a remote unit of Death Valley National Park known as Devil's Hole — a mysterious flooded cave that happens to be home to the one of the rarest fish on Earth, and one that's critically endangered too.

This episode, based on Paige Blankenbuehler's High Country News feature, is a bite-size crime story starring an obscure species of tiny fish, and some hedonistic humans who stepped a little too far over the line, and suffered some big consequences.

Last Seen host Nora Saks dives into the fraught relationship between humans and nature, and the long arm of the law intended to protect our most vulnerable species.


Show notes: 

Big thanks to Paige Blankenbuehler, Kevin Wilson, Ranger Joshua Vann, Detective Morgan Dillon, the National Park Service, and the Nye County Sheriff’s Office, and to the experts that shared their knowledge on the Endangered Species Act.


Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Nora Saks: Recently, I was lucky enough to meet a kindred spirit. Another journalist who shares my fascination with our species’ infinite capacity for excess.

Paige Blankenbuehler: I love the sort of like hedonistic side of people. I love people who just accidentally step a little bit too far over the line. 

Nora: That’s Paige Blankenbuehler. She writes and edits for High Country News, an independent magazine that covers the Western United States. And the story we’re telling today was originally reported out by her. Unlike me, Paige gravitates towards conflict.

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Paige: If I had to define a beat for myself, I think I'm really drawn to stories where wild people and wild things collide and are sort of at odds with one another.

Nora: For decades, one considerable source of that tension has been endangered species and the burly federal law that protects them.

[NEWS MONTAGE:

NPR CLIP: The Northern Spotted Owl is synonymous with lost livelihoods.

NPR CLIP: There’s a big fight going on over grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park.

NPR CLIP: A bird the size of a chicken may block a variety of business operations. The bird is the greater sage grouse.]

Nora: The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. It’s one of the most powerful conservation laws in the world. Still, there are casualties. Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. Paige told me about a hunter in Utah who shot and killed a then-endangered grey wolf a few years ago, claiming he thought it was a coyote.

Paige: There's no charge whatsoever. There's no sentence. So this hunter is given the benefit of the doubt. Like, OK, you didn't mean to. 

Nora: Experts told me this kind of thing happens all the time. You can’t be convicted of a crime under the ESA, unless prosecutors can prove you  knew you were harming a protected species. But once in a blue moon, there’s a violation considered so egregious, the federal government decides to send a strong signal. Punish the guilty. A case, Paige says, that really does,

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Paige: Test your commitment to this idea of how much the natural world matters and is it worthy of protection? 

Nora: A few years ago, she wrote about one of those cases in High Country News, and I could not forget it. Because this case didn’t involve a grizzly bear or grey wolf or some other beloved charismatic megafauna that usually grace the cover of wildlife magazines. Quite the opposite.

Paige: It's kind of this like bite-sized crime story that had a pretty unexpected ending.

Nora: One starring an obscure species of tiny fish that could go missing forever at any moment. And, yes, some hedonistic humans who stepped a little too far over the line, and this time, suffered some big consequences.

[MUSIC]

Nora: Welcome to Last Seen - a show about people, places and things that have gone missing and whether or not they can, or even should, be found. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR station. I’m Nora Saks.

This is Episode 5: Belly Up

This bite-sized crime story begins in southwestern Nevada. Just outside of Las Vegas, in a moon-like stretch of the Mojave desert. So dry, just shrubs and desert grasses grow. But in April, it gets a little bit of moisture - enough to set off a super bloom of wildflowers.

Paige: So it's speckled with yellows and reds and purples and blues. And it's sandy and sagey and really stark, but really beautiful. 

Nora: It was a warm Saturday evening, right around that time of year, that a trio of young men, all locals, set up camp out there. In the middle of nowhere. Maybe it was the desert coming back to life. That intoxicating feeling when spring is in the air. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the coconut rum.

Paige: On this one particular night in April 2016, a group of three guys are passing around this bottle of Malibu and shooting into the desert. You know, a word that they actually used at the time, I picked this up in one of the incident reports, was that they were out there bunny blasting. 

Nora: Bunny blasting is exactly what it sounds like: shooting some poor unsuspecting jackrabbits. So what happens on a night like this?

Paige: Things pretty rapidly went downhill. They were really drunk on rum. They were driving around this off-road vehicle and all three of them in it together. You know, Trent, one of the men, this chestnut-haired twenty-seven-year-old, is carrying a shotgun and just kind of firing it off at signs. And they’re tearing through the Amargosa Valley and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. 

Nora: Overflowing with reckless abandon, and rugged individualism.

Paige: And they, they get closer and closer to this really sort of remote unit of Death Valley National Park. 

Nora: Death Valley spans more than three million acres along the California - Nevada border. It’s the driest and hottest place on the continent. But in this one separate part of the park, natural springs gurgle up to the surface, creating a refuge for dozens of species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. It’s an oasis in a thirsty desert. And it’s here that a heavily-guarded, forbidden fortress looms on the side of a scrubby hill.

Paige: And it's called Devil's Hole. It's this deep pool inside of this limestone cavern. And you know, back in the early 20th century, it was a place that was called the ‘miners bathtub’, you know, so it's this kind of swimming hole. But it's since been kind of surrounded by metal fencing and barbed wire and security cameras. 

Nora: And signs warning “restricted area”. Keep out. But this inebriated threesome seems determined to break in. First, they ram their off-road vehicle into the fence. Then one dude shoots at the padlocked gate. Unable to open it,

Paige: They get the bright idea to scale the fencing and climb over the barbed wire into this small enclosure where there's a tiny opening to this deep aquifer that goes hundreds of feet down. It's sort of this glowing blue hole, honestly. It just like radiates out of this desert landscape.

Nora: Once inside, the guys destroy a surveillance camera or two. One takes a whiz. One vomits. And then one man, the chestnut-haired guy with the shotgun makes a fateful decision. He staggers his way down the steep boulders, down into the mouth of the sunken cavern, down to the edge of the glowing blue hole.

Paige: He drops the shotgun, he strips off his clothes, and then he slips into this deep warm water. He didn't know it yet, but that would prove to be his worst mistake of the night.

Nora: That one night of reckless abandon back in 2016 was not exactly the first time humans have been seduced by the Caribbean blue warm waters of this beautiful sunken pool. Like Paige said, dusty old miners used to bathe here a century or two ago. It lured cult leader Charles Manson, who believed this was the portal to an underground kingdom. And in the 1970s, it beckoned to Kevin Wilson, who visited with his family when he was a young boy.

Kevin Wilson: And I can remember laying down on this observation deck and looking down at Devil's Hole and it seemed like this strange place. 

Nora: Kevin, who’s in his 50’s now, isn’t a dusty miner or cult leader. He’s the aquatic ecologist for Death Valley National Park and manages the Devil’s Hole research program. He’s spent his career studying this strange place. And this “window into the aquifer” - as Kevin likes to call it - is still full of mysteries. For one thing, no one knows how deep this ancient fissure goes.

Kevin: Divers have been down to four hundred and thirty-six feet and did not find a bottom. 

Nora: And get this, earthquakes rumbling thousands of miles away have caused huge waves to slosh around inside it.

[WATER SLOSHING FROM DEVIL’S HOLE]

Nora: But to scientists like Kevin, what might be most fascinating of all, is who dwells in Devil’s Hole. Not Satan, at least we don’t think, but one of the rarest fish on Earth. An iridescent, bright blue species - about the size of your pet goldfish.

Kevin: they'll kind of chase each other and kind of playfully run around, swim around if you're a fish.  

Nora: That puppy-like behavior is where it gets its name — pupfish. Scientists believe that ten thousand years ago or more, one group of pupfish got trapped here alone in this flooded cave in the middle of the desert.

Kevin: You know I first was intrigued by this fish that lives in an extreme environment. The water's very warm. It's ninety-three degrees Fahrenheit. There's very little oxygen in the water.

Nora: Plus very little sunlight, and not much food. But over time - they adapt to this extreme environment. Slow down. Lose a pelvic fin. Eventually - sort of like Darwin’s finches - isolated on their islands in the Galapagos  - this tiny and very isolated population of tiny fish evolves into a completely unique species. One sustained for all those millennia by a shallow, underwater rock shelf. The limestone shelf is covered in algae, and it’s the only place these special pupfish feed and breed. It’s about the size of two ping pong tables.

Kevin: The smallest known habitat for a vertebrate species.

Nora: Meaning - anything with a backbone, anywhere on Earth. Along with the bald eagle, the Florida manatee, the Devil’s Hole pupfish was one of the very first species to receive federal protection. But in spite of the decades of effort and millions of dollars spent on recovering them, they are still critically endangered. Kevin dons scuba gear and helps count the pupfish twice a year, and says fluctuations in their numbers is normal. But he’s worried.

Kevin: You know, since the mid-90s we've hit a low of 35 observable fish, in the spring of 2013. I turned instantly grey. 

Nora: Their numbers have been well below historical levels for a while now, and scientists aren’t sure why.

Kevin: Why aren't we seeing 400 fish in the fall and why aren't we seeing two hundred fish in the spring? And so there isn't a smoking gun.

Nora: It’s most likely a lot of different factors at once. Synergy - not the good kind.

Kevin: Put ‘em all together, it’s just not the best ecosystem right now. 

Nora: These primordial desert fish might be teetering on the edge of existence - but they are survivors. And if they can keep hanging on they might have a lot to teach us about surviving climate change - and how to live in harsher, hotter environments. Kevin says these pupfish they could be the canary in the cave.

Kevin: We're studying a system that's already at that climax of temperature and then these others are going to come up and we might be able to say well we could do this, that or the other to preserve these other species from going extinct. 

Nora: But first—the pupfish would have to confront a different kind of menace. On a Monday morning, in late spring 2016, Kevin Wilson rolled into his National Park Service office, ready to do some science. Except that when he arrived, one of his staffers was hunched over a computer screen, pouring over security camera footage from Devil’s Hole over the weekend.

Kevin: And so he went and hit one of the recordings and he goes, oh, no, Kevin's not going to be happy. 

Nora: In the videos, three men ram, shoot, and scale their way into the fortified enclosure. Then stumble around, leaning and swaying. It’s funny at first. But then, it isn’t. Kevin plays the next bit of footage over and over.  The view from the underwater pupfish cam.

Paige: And it’s fairly dark. You know, you're submerged in this sort of like dark teal and you see, like, little bubbles rising up occasionally. And then you see this really pale foot and this tanned calf just plunge into the water. You see it coming from the surface until it dramatically actually steps around on, you know, what you can see in the camera footage is this pretty lush algae-covered shelf. 

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Nora: Then another pale foot plunges in and suddenly, she says, there’s this pair of disembodied legs just shuffling around, while fish dart out of the way.

Kevin: I was mad. You know, I was angry. Why? Why would someone do this? I mean, it's obviously closed off.

Nora: Kevin was also anxious. He didn’t know yet if any fish had been harmed. He also had no idea what other dangers could be laying in wait at the crime scene. Or if this trespass was some kind of anti-fed action. Just a few months earlier, the far-right extremist Ammon Bundy had led an armed take over of a national wildlife refuge over in Oregon. It was all over the news and national parks were on high alert.

Kevin: I called my law enforcement in the park. 

That would be Ranger Josh Vann.

Josh Vann: Give me one second, they’re calling me on the radio. Gulf One, go ahead.

Nora: Josh is currently stationed at Great Basin National Park, but was working at Death Valley back in 2016, when Kevin rang him up to tell him there was a problem out at Devil’s Hole. They had caught some guys with guns on camera, and they were inside the fence.

Josh: And it, it's one of those times where you just kind of sit back and you're like, oh, crap, what is, what's going on?

When the troupe of law enforcement officials and scientists got out there, they found shot gun shells. A gate ripped out of the ground. Beer cans everywhere. Then, when Josh actually gets down into Devil’s Hole.

Josh: There's somebody’s underwear over there floating in the water

And let’s not forget the,

Josh: Big huge pile of vomit on the ground. Because the smell like it, it's nobody can miss that. 

Nora: Basically, the site - which is a national park unit, a national monument and a wildlife refuge - was trashed. Like there was a party, and no one bothered to clean up afterwards. But on top of the shotgun shells, the briefs, the barf, was something far more serious also floating on the surface of the water. Belly up.

Josh: There was a dead pupfish found the following day. There was a necropsy performed on that pupfish trying to determine the cause of death. There were no apparent causes of death. Meaning he wasn't stepped on and squished. He was not overweight. Not underweight and malnourished. He wasn't old, there was no reasonable cause of why this fish is found dead. 

Nora: The time frame for how long it had been deceased matched with when the skinny dipper tread on the rock shelf. Scientists say it was probably shock. Yes - fish can die of shock.

Josh: Did he kill the one pupfish? I'm not going to say factually that he did, I believe the evidence points to and it is reasonable to believe that he did.

Nora: Maybe you’re thinking, ‘wow, that Ranger Josh is being a little melodramatic.’ The way he talks about that onoe dead pupfish is what you’d expect from a homicide detective. But at the time of this trespass, approximately 115 Devil’s Hole pupfish were left in the wild - total. They’re the last of their kind. And it was even scarier to think about all the damage that could have been done.

Josh: To me, it wasn't about the single dead pupfish. That shelf that he walked across, it's very small, you know, three or four steps, and you've made it across the entire shelf. That's their entire habitat on the entire face of the planet. That's all they've got. It's the only place they live. The only place they eat. The only place they sleep. The only place they reproduce. And it was at peak breeding season. So, yes, there's one dead pupfish. How many eggs were crushed? How many pupfish wouldn't be born after that event? That's an unanswerable question. 

Nora: One night of drunken debauchery could have wiped out an entire species. But these tough little fish have faced existential threats before. More on that, and the fate of these Devil’s Hole vandals, after the break.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

[NBC DOCUMENTARY

Jack Lemmon: Death Valley. It came by the name honestly]

Nora: If you were watching NBC way back in 1970, you might have heard actor Jack Lemmon narrating a doom and gloom documentary called Timetable for Disaster. Zooming in on, you guessed it, our Lilliputian piscine friends, the Devil’s Hole pupfish.

[NBC DOCUMENTARY

Jack: So take a good look. As far as we can ascertain, this is the only motion picture footage ever taken of the pupfish. Unless there’s a miracle, it will be the last. Man is about to murder them]

Nora: The pupfish were cast as a poster child for the conservation movement, because of a fight as old as the West itself: who has a right to water. Back in the 1960s, some alfalfa and cattle ranchers in this arid corner of Nevada started drilling wells to irrigate thousands of acres of cropland.

Paige: And the groundwater there, it is just one system. So it’s taking a straw into one bathtub, whether you're tapping into it from here or there. And this particular ranch was just a couple miles outside of Devil’s Hole. 

Nora: This ranch sucked so much water through its straws, the water levels in that thermal pool began to drop. Dramatically. Remember, the pupfish live and die by how much water is in that hole. And how much is covering their precious algae-covered rock shelf. So in a nutshell, the Feds ordered the ranchers to stop. The ranchers refused. The Feds sued. And battle lines were drawn. Some bumper stickers shouted SAVE THE PUPFISH! Others - KILL THE PUPFISH! One local newspaper editor even threatened to throw the pesticide Rotenone in the pool - and make the pupfish a moot point.

Paige: The arguments at the time were like - really we're gonna protect this tiny little fish that no one's heard of over, you know, the lives and livelihoods and, you know, hardworking ranching families? Like that doesn't make sense. There was a lot of community anger around that. 

Nora: Especially in a sparsely populated place like Nye County, Nevada, in a town like Pahrump.

Morgan Dillon: Uh, pretty much hookers and aliens is what Pahrump is known for. 

Nora: That’s Morgan Dillon, calling from the parking lot of the police substation.

Morgan: I'm a detective sergeant with the Nye County Sheriff's Office. 

Nora: Morgan worked on the Devil’s Hole case, and he lives in Pahrump - where prostitution is legal. And that top-secret military base Area 51 - is right down the road.

[XFILES Excerpt: Is this why we came out here, Mulder? To look for UFOs?]

Nora: But before all the aliens, the hookers, and lately - the influx of retirees, Morgan says Pahrump was a rural farming town in the desert. With the type of politics, you might expect.

Morgan: Nye County is very conservative politically. And most of the economy is based on agriculture and mining and stuff. 

Nora: When it comes to protecting endangered species, and their habitat -

Morgan: Any kind of limits on the land frustrates a lot of people who make their living off of it. 

Nora: That’s especially true when those limits are being imposed by the federal government in a region where,

Morgan: We have various flavors of anti-government sentiment.

Nora: Driving around town, Paige says you can spot plenty of yellow Gadsden flags, you know, the ones with the rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, above the words “Don’t Tread on Me”.

Paige: And the pupfish were perceived as very much treading on the Western rancher in the 1960s.   

Nora: But in this battle, it was the pupfish who carried the day. In 1976, the US Supreme Court made a call. The federal government’s right to maintain water in Devil’s Hole for the pupfish and their habitat trumped the water rights of ranchers.

Paige: So this was sort of a precedent-setting case. This was something that the federal government really wanted to throw the book at to crystallize at that moment, that species are worthy of protection. Even the little ones, even the noncharismatic ones, even those that you had never heard of before like it’s important. 

Nora: The era of pupfish bumper stickers is long gone. And right after the attack at Devil’s Hole, it was obvious to investigators like Morgan Dillon that the vandals didn’t have an agenda.

Morgan: I didn't see any politics in the crime at all.

Nora: Nonetheless, Paige says the 2016 trespassing incident activated an intricate legal enforcement network designed to protect the endangered species and their habitat.

Paige: And it's not just, you know, the measly Park Service and they're understaffed investigators. This went all the way up to Washington, D.C. 

Nora: And all the way back down to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.

Morgan: We were calling it the pupfish murder forever after the media got a hold of it.

Nora: Detective Morgan and Ranger Josh were part of the very intimidating sounding Scorpion Task Force. They started their investigation by collecting all the unnatural things discarded poolside at Devil’s Hole.

Josh: I mean, you watch CSI on TV and you think everything is going to have evidence on it, you know, fingerprints can be pulled off of a brick, right? No, it can’t. 

Nora: They did not find fingerprints on the beer cans. Or the shotgun shells. They didn’t try to pull DNA from the underwear. But did stash it in the case file.

Josh: I had the underwear in my safe for a long time.

Nora: Next, they put out a crime stoppers tip.

Morgan: It's hard to investigate when there's no witnesses, nobody around, it's off of a dirt road that goes from one place to nowhere to another place in nowhere. So we were originally just trying to come up with ideas. 

Nora: In the end, the Scorpion Task Force had something better than ideas. They had surveillance footage. It clearly shows the three suspects' faces. And, their off-road vehicle. Which another detective on their team noticed was something special. A blue Yamaha Rhino with custom modifications. Now, where do you go when you want to find something unique to buy...or perhaps get rid of?

Josh: And there it is, it was posted on Craigslist. 

Morgan: When we were able to get that break, that was about as lucky as we could get. 

Nora: The ad - and the address - led them to Pahrump - right to the home of suspect number one - Steven Scwhinkendorf.

Josh: So yeah, we rode out there, knocked on the door.

Nora: A tall, youngish guy answers, his arms crossed. Josh asks him if he might have been out near Devil’s Hole recently.

Josh: Yeah, yeah, we went there over the weekend. And at that point I was like, yes! OK, it's the guy. Tell us about your, what’d you do out there? Oh, we went bunny blasting. Now I've got a guy who admits to being there, a guy who admits to having a shotgun and shooting shotgun shells. And I'm just getting more and more excited.

Nora: Then Morgan asks him if he and his buddies might have gone for a little swim in that glowing blue 93 degree pool - Devil’s Hole.

Josh: And he's like, no. No we didn't. And now I'm thinking, OK, he knows he's in trouble. He's clamming up. Well, did you guys go inside the fence? No. No, we didn't. 

Nora: Morgan produces a photograph pulled from the park’s security footage.

Josh: And holds it out to him and says, well, what do you have to say about this? And the guy looks at the picture and he says, well, well, that's me, that's my buddy Trent. That's my buddy Edgar. Yeah. Yes, we did go in there. Geez, I don't remember that. I had this, like, celebration like you've admitted now to being inside there. 

Nora: Josh says the suspect also admitted they’d all been drinking. Quite a lot. He was polite. Cooperative. And rather dumbfounded by the entire ordeal.

Josh: You know, the whole time it wasn't really clicking with him exactly how important this was. 

Nora: Schwinkendorf volunteered the names and numbers of the other guys. But by now, the crime stoppers tip had gone viral. Word was getting out about the Devil’s Hole Vandals.

[KTNV Broadcast]

Newscaster: A fish on the endangered species list was killed. And surveillance video shows how it might have happened. Investigators are offering a 5000 dollar reward to anyone who can help find those three men]

Paige: You know, everyone's kind of rallying around the save the pupfish kind of idea. This was really viewed as this egregious crime against wildlife.

Nora: And suspect number two was feeling the heat. Edgar Reyes admitted to the investigators that he had trespassed. Confirmed that the shotgun belonged to him. But he wasn’t their main person of interest. The one that would really have to answer for this. That would be drunk guy number three. Trent Sargent. The Skinny Dipper.

Paige: They wanted to find the Skinny Dipper because the skinny dipper killed the pupfish. So they were getting nervous that his friends were going to kind of warn him and he was going to get spooked and just disappear. 

Nora: But Trent did the opposite. When the investigators reached him, he told them it was his face that was all over the news. That he had received hundreds of messages on social media. Death threats even. And that yes, it was he who had stripped down and plunged into that pool. Then Josh recalls he asked them unprompted if they’d looked into his criminal history.

Josh: because I know I'm not supposed to be around guns, I'm a prior convicted felon. I know I shouldn't have had a gun.

Nora: Turns out - Trent’s record? Not so squeaky clean. As someone previously convicted of a felony, he was prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm.

Paige: For me what this tells me about Trent Sargent is was trying to get ahead of it. He knew he screwed up. You know, this is a person who had struggled with addiction for a lot of his teenage and early adult years. But since then, he was really trying to clean up his life. He had a young son who at the time of this trespass was only one month old. So I think he was trying to apologize and maybe he thought that that meant that he wouldn't be penalized quite as hard. 

Nora: Right after Memorial Day, Trent Sargent turned himself in to the authorities.

Paige: He later admitted to knowing about the pupfish and their status, and he insisted that he didn't mean to hurt them and that it really was really just this, like, momentary lapse of judgment. He was drunk. It was a mistake. 

Nora: In the end, Trent and his buddies could not escape the long arm of the Endangered Species Act. All three men involved in the drunken spree plead guilty to violating the ESA, and to destruction of government property. Trent alone - to felon in possession of a firearm. The case never went to trial. Drunk guys one and two, Steven Schwinkendorf and Edgar Reyes, were stuck with fines and twelve months of probation. But the consequences for drunk guy number three, Trent Sargent - the skinny dipper, the guy who tread on the pupfish habitat and fired the shotgun - were more severe. More than two years after the break-in, a U.S. District Judge slapped Trent with almost $14,000 in restitution. Banned him from entering public lands for life. And, here’s the real kicker: PRISON.

For the Endangered Species Act violation,

Josh: He was sentenced to nine months in custody. 

Nora: Josh Vann again. For felon in possession of a firearm,

Josh: One year and one day

Nora: Destruction of government property,

Josh: One year and one day. 

Trent was to serve out his sentences concurrently at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, meaning -

Josh: He was in custody for a total of one year and one day. 

Nora: Paige never got to ask Trent how he felt about his sentence, because he declined to be interviewed. I also had no luck reaching him. But after the sentencing in 2018, she did visit with his parents at their home in Indian Springs, Nevada. A home filled with hunting trophies and pictures of family. Including one of Trent, age 12, showing off the first fish he ever caught.

Paige: I was really surprised to find out that, you know, not only did Trent kind of vaguely know about the pupfish and know that they were endangered species, he had actually learned a lot about them. This is a place that he went on field trips. You know, his family is a hunting family, but it comes from this place of stewardship and deep, deep respect of the natural world. And so his family was kind of horrified that this had happened.

Nora: They told her Trent was horrified too, and that he was willing to take full responsibility for his actions. Still, the fact that their son was in prison meant that he wasn’t around to raise his own young son. Or go hunting with his father. Now, it was Trent who had gone missing from the Sargent family.

Paige: And one thing that they told me when I was interviewing them is, you know, like we understand that these protections exist for a reason. We agree with that. We fully accept that. And we're deeply sorry for what happened. But if someone ran over a cat, are they going to stop to make sure it's alive? No, probably not. They're just going to keep driving. But here, Trent kills a single fish and even completely unintentionally, and he is serving prison time for it. So it's a difficult thing to accept. They never once described it as unfair. But there is definitely this sense of like, wow, that is like a severe punishment for the death of a tiny fish.  

Nora: Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Many in the conservation community thought these guys got what they had coming. If their actions didn’t have serious consequences, what would discourage other people from running amok? And maybe sending an innocent species into oblivion? And as far as the authorities involved were concerned, it was a big win.

Josh: What we get out of this case is education. The pupfish and their environment and how vulnerable they are has been highlighted. I don't think anybody is going to look at this and say, Oh, he got off with nothing. A year of your life is significant. I can tell you that the Park Service, I feel as an agency, is satisfied with the outcome of the case. 

Nora: Almost six years have passed since the Malibu rum-fueled trespass and vandalism of Devil’s Hole. Since then, it sounds like Trent Sargent’s life has changed, for the better. His father told me - in a very brief, and rather tense phone call - that his son did his time. Paid his dues. He’s out of prison now, off parole, has a new job, is about to get married. But mostly, his dad said, it’s time for the rest of the world to let this go, and move on. The Sargent family certainly has.

As for Devil’s Hole - the National Park Service has only fortified the site further. Beefed up the barbed wire fencing. Installed better security cameras. Built an observation deck a good 80 feet away from the pool.

Kevin: There's not much more we can do.I mean we have this observation tunnel. We don't want to turn it into a total prison. 

Nora: Park aquatic ecologist Kevin Wilson again.

Kevin: But, I mean, it’s unfortunate. I'd love to, to have it more accessible, but it's a balance between conservation, preservation and keeping people from doing stupid stuff.

Nora: The Devil’s Hole pupfish did manage to survive the momentary shock to their fragile system caused by one careless human. But all of this added protection may not be enough to save them from a bigger, more complicated threat caused by humankind. The climate crisis. As temperatures in the aquifer continue to rise - they have nowhere else to go.

Kevin: What's the future?

Nora: Yeah. What's their outlook? What's in your crystal ball? 

Kevin: Right. My crystal ball? It's, you know, by the end of this century, if we still have the Devil's Hole pupfish in the wild, I would be surprised. 

Nora: No one knows for sure what the 21st century has in store for this tiny yet resilient endangered species. But in 2020, the US Board of Geographic Names voted - unanimously - to call a previously un-named 4,300 foot mountain in Nevada right outside of Devil’s Hole,

Paige: Pupfish Peak. And something that they said at the time of designating this is that it should serve as this reminder to people of the tenacity of these fish. So I really love to think of the Devil's Hole pupfish as being mighty as a mountain. 

Nora: For now, Paige is continuing to root for the pupfish. Crossing her fingers that every count of their population is a little higher than the last.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

Nora: This week’s episode of Last Seen was written, reported and produced by me, Nora Saks, your host and curator of this season. And it was based on Paige Blankenbuehler’s feature in High Country News called - “How a tiny endangered species put a man in prison”.

Nick White is our story editor for this series.

Mix, sound design and original music by Paul Vaitkus.

Production help from my WBUR Podcasts teammates, Dean Russell, Amory Sivertson, Matt Reed, Quincy Walters, Kristen Torres and Sofie Kodner.

Fact Checking by Meera Raman.

Ben Brock Johnson is our executive producer.

Big thanks to Paige Blankenbuehler, Kevin Wilson, Ranger Joshua Vann, Detective Morgan Dillon, the National Park Service, and the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.

To find out more about this story and see show notes - go to our website, wbur.org/lastseen. Follow us on Twitter - @LastSeenPodcast. And pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things, that have gone missing. Drop us a line at lastseenwbur@gmail.com

Next up in the series, a story about one man who broke his own silence, and in doing so, broke an entire country’s silence about those disappeared during the Spanish Civil War.

Emilio Silva: That is why it is necessary to make noise, so that memory wakes up after so many years of being asleep.

Nora: Thanks so much for listening. We’ll be back next week.

[END]


You can find all of our stories and show notes on our website and follow us on Twitter at @LastSeenPodcast.

You can pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things, that have gone missing. We’re interested in pitches from contributors or just folks who want us to tackle the story. Drop us a line at lastseenwbur@gmail.com.


Nora Saks Producer
Nora Saks is a producer with WBUR's podcast team. 

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