KAPA’A, Hawaii – The first of the bodies was discovered by a hiker who snapped a photo of the suspicious scene with his cellphone. Buried in a nest on the westernmost spit of the Hawaiian island of Oahu was a dead bird the size of a human child. On the ground next to it was a large stick.
State conservation officers would later determine that more than a dozen birds had been bloodied and dismembered with a bat, a machete and a pellet gun. Nearby, several smashed eggs were scattered about the craggy, lava rock coast.
That gruesome sight in December 2015 soon became a crime scene, one that eventually implicated six students and recent graduates of a prestigious Honolulu prep school whose alumni include former president Barack Obama. While on a camping trip the night before the hiker’s arrival, authorities alleged, the boys and young men had hiked to the Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve and mercilessly slaughtered at least 15 Laysan albatrosses, federally protected birds that have been the focus of a 26-year-long conservation effort. Nearly a dozen of their eggs were crushed; six other eggs failed to hatch due to the death of a parent.
The night of destruction set conservation efforts back nearly a decade and caused more than $200,000 in damage, state and federal investigators say. It has also fueled outrage among wildlife advocates and nature lovers in Hawaii, who contend that the students – who were accused of severing the birds’ feet to collect their I.D. bands as souvenirs and posting photos of the mutilated birds on social media – have not received punishments proportionate to such a shocking, callous crime.
“This crime is absolutely heinous,” said Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case. “Jail time and significant community service time should be carefully considered for this kind of crime – as punishment, deterrence and restitution.”
Of the six boys and young men who went on the unchaperoned camping trip, three were arrested and charged with crimes. Two were tried as juveniles, and the court records related to their case are sealed. The final suspect, 20-year-old Christian Gutierrez, pleaded no contest in March to charges including animal cruelty and theft and is scheduled to be sentenced July 6. He faces up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Gutierrez’s attorney, Myles Breiner, said that while his client participated in the crime, he was not the principal architect. One of the juveniles brought a machete and initiated the killing of the birds and the destruction of the habitat, Breiner said. The attorney said he plans to ask the judge for a deferred sentence, which would allow Gutierrez, a sophomore film student at New York University, to keep his record clear of a criminal conviction if he complies with requirements set by the judge.
“Christian was, relatively speaking, a minor participant,” Breiner said.
That is not how Honolulu deputy prosecutor Janice Futa views it. In a statement, she said she opposes a deferral as too lenient.
“While (the) defendant’s conduct in this case was brutal, his actions have echoed well beyond the physical devastation left in his wake,” reads a court memo filed by the prosecution. “Far from being an isolated event, the Ka’ena Point albatross will be affected for years to come.”
With a magnificent seven-foot wingspan, the Laysan albatross is found mainly in the uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Because the future of this low-lying chain of atolls and small isles is uncertain due to rising sea levels, scientists are working hard to reestablish albatross colonies at higher elevations on the main Hawaiian Islands by creating safe habitat that attracts them naturally. Since 1991, the colony at Ka’ena Point, where 300 to 400 albatrosses nest, has been a shining example of this work.
Simply relocating an albatross to new terrain for breeding is not viable because the seabirds imprint on the location of their birth colony. The species spends most of its life gliding over the sea, then returns to land to mate from mid-November to mid-December, as well as to lay and incubate a single egg. The birds can fly more than 2,000 miles in a single stretch, yet, almost as if drawn back by a magnetic pull, they return with stupefying precision to the same place every year.
In Hawaii, the albatross killings were particularly shocking because they implicated privileged young men who allegedly committed the crime for the fun of it – and who should have known better. All are former classmates from Punahou School, where the eighth-grade curriculum includes a field trip to one of the world’s best-studied albatross breeding colonies at Ka’ena Point. That the accused were privy to the importance of the remote site as a safety zone for the vulnerable species has deepened public outrage over the assault.
“The destruction that happened was distressing to begin with, but then to have it announced very quickly that the suspects had a relationship to Punahou was really distressing,” said Punahou School spokeswoman Laurel Bowers Husain.
Community outrage over the killings quickly spilled into anger over the pace of the investigation. It took nearly a year for the state to file 19 charges against Gutierrez. In exchange for his cooperation with the investigation, 14 of the 15 animal cruelty charges he had faced were dismissed. None of the suspects has commented publicly on the killings.
“Despite the particularly cruel circumstances surrounding the case, it looks like the alleged bird killers will get off easy,” read an opinion column published in the online watchdog news outlet Honolulu Civil Beat a week after the total charges against Gutierrez were reduced from 19 to five.
Wildlife biologist Lindsay Young waited nine days to visit the natural reserve where the massacre took place. She did that so she could recover the body parts by sniffing out the stench of rot.
It was a hellish hunt for evidence, she said – a webbed foot in the guinea grass, bloodied feathers buried in beach sand. Stuffed inside a burrow was the carcass of a large bird with severed feet. Some of the dead animals, which the prosecution alleged had been tied to a rope and launched into the sea, were never recovered.
Looking at the future reproductive efforts of the colony, Young said the loss of life extends far beyond those birds that were killed.
“We essentially lost hundreds of birds, and we still have no idea why this happened,” said Young, executive director of Pacific Rim Conservation, the nonprofit that studies and helps protect the albatrosses at Ka’ena Point. “These kids, more than anybody, knew why this place was special.”
The only predator-free, high-elevation breeding colony in the main Hawaiian islands, Ka’ena Point had become a sort of city on the hill for the Laysan albatross. Research conducted there has contributed not only to scientists’ understanding of the seabird, but of animal behavior in general. Studies by Pacific Rim Conservation, for example, found that because two-thirds of the albatrosses at the point are female, many of them team up with another female to co-parent chicks, taking turns playing the role of mother every other year. Young said this behavior offers an early glimpse at how same-sex behavior can be adaptive in the animal kingdom.
Such discoveries necessitate intensive, multiyear studies, which is why the albatross deaths at Ka’ena Point have been such a staggering setback, Young said.
“I think it speaks to the culture that we are raising our kids in, that kids at one of the most prestigious schools – not just in our state, but in our country – could plan and execute this and not apologize for it,” Young said. “This is about more than just the birds.”