‘Egregious’ abuse of the law: Tennessee wildlife agency takes falcons and prosecutes their owner

By: - February 14, 2023 6:04 am
Holly Lamar with one of her falcons. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Holly Lamar with one of her hawks. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Holly Lamar, a master falconer and owner of a Nashville “bird experience” business, has a story to tell about each one of her 13 captive-bred birds of prey.

The story behind Faith, her seven-year-old peregrine falcon, is tied to a particularly rough patch for Lamar, who experienced success as a Grammy-nominated songwriter, then lost nearly everything. The 20-day-old chick arrived just after Lamar fell victim to a financial scam that wiped out earnings from her music career.

She picked the name “Faith” to symbolize the feelings of trust she was trying to regain in her life — and as a nod to Faith Hill, the country singer who recorded “Breathe,” a 1999 megahit co-written by Lamar. 

Faith, the falcon, is now dead — one of 13 falcons seized by officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in a sweeping August search of Lamar’s home and property that a Nashville judge later characterized as “egregious,” an “abuse of the law” and a violation of Lamar’s constitutional rights.

TWRA obtained the search warrant just days after Lamar filed a complaint against an agency employee in charge of enforcing raptor regulations. The employee, Lamar told the Lookout, had given her conflicting information about state raptor permit rules, and failed to respond entirely to other questions, for months.

He was intimidating, she said. He told Lamar he was a former homicide detective and domestic violence investigator experienced in complex investigations —and now he was investigating Lamar.

The TWRA employee, Captain Rusty Boles, has not served as a homicide detective or domestic violence officer, a Lookout review of his employment history found. 

Lamar would not learn of the 30 misdemeanor charges against her for three months — after her birds, cell phone, computer, photography equipment, office files, compact disks and other possessions were taken from her suburban home in the Davidson County’s White’s Creek neighborhood, effectively shutting down her bird education business.

Holly Lamar tears up as she talks about her falcon, Faith. The bird was confiscated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and died in the agency's custody. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Holly Lamar tears up as she talks about her peregrine falcon, Faith. The bird was confiscated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and died in the agency’s custody. (Photo: John Partipilo)

It wasn’t until January — five months after Lamar’s birds and possessions had been taken from her —that Davidson County General Sessions Judge Lynda Jones ordered their immediate return, dismissing the warrants and issuing a blistering commentary from the bench:

“I feel that the defendant’s Constitutional rights have been violated in (an) egregious manner,” Jones said during the Jan. 6 hearing, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

“For the state to come in in August after a complaint has been rendered about an employee and ask for a search warrant is an overreach of the government,” Jones said. “Going in and taking someone’s property that’s not justified and then holding it for two months and bringing criminal charges later is an abuse of the law.”

“The state is further concerned about potential for malicious prosecution,” the judge said.

Lamar’s confiscated birds — among them, a Harris Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, hybrid Barbary Falcon, American Kestrel, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Augur Buzzard, two Saker Falcons and a Barn Owl — have since been returned, but of her two peregrine falcons, only Levi survived his five months in a TWRA-contracted facility under conditions that Lamar called wholly unsuitable. At times Faith was kept in a dog crate, covered with a blanket. Lamar keeps birds in large outdoor sheds, with sunlight and room to fly.

Lamar said she is heartbroken at the loss of Faith, who died over the Christmas holidays. She is also struggling financially in the aftermath of bird education business losses she incurred, while spending tens of thousands of dollars in her legal defense.  

“This could have been stopped multiple times before my bird died,” Lamar said last week. “I kept her alive for seven years across three continents. TWRA couldn’t keep her alive for four months.”

I feel that the defendant's Constitutional rights have been violated in (an) egregious manner.

– Davidson County General Sessions Judge Lynda Jones

Ben Raybin, Lamar’s attorney, said TWRA’s seizure of Lamar’s birds and the criminal charges brought against her “never should have happened.” The search warrants had nothing to do with the wellbeing of the birds in Lamar’s care, instead alleging “mere regulatory violations,” he said.

“The entire ordeal was an injustice to Holly and her birds that exposes significant problems within the TWRA and its regulations considering the judge’s finding that her constitutional rights were violated and the TWRA’s statement that approval occurred at high levels,” Raybin said in a statement. 

Last month, the Davidson County District Attorney’s office withdrew all charges against Lamar. 

“After evaluating the judge’s ruling, a decision by the office was made not to continue the case,” said Ken Whitehouse, a spokesperson for the District Attorney.

Boles, the TWRA officer, was unavailable for an interview last week, an agency spokesperson said. TWRA officials “followed proper protocol” in Lamar’s case, Emily Buck, the spokesperson said. That included getting initial approval to seek warrants by a district Captain and a regional major, before obtaining the District Attorney approval, she said. 

“TWRA is committed to continuously evolving policy and regulations to improve law enforcement procedure and the conservation of birds of prey and other wildlife species,” Buck said. 

“We make every effort to educate the public about proper care and handling, but the Agency is tasked with pursuing enforcement when violations persist after education efforts fail.”

The case is the latest in a series of recent controversies over how the state wildlife agency chooses to exercise its power over Tennessee residents.

‘Unprecedented’ in the modern history of U.S. falconry

In late 2021, TWRA was the subject of rare bipartisan pushback from Tennessee lawmakers over its plans to raze thousands of acres of public forests in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, without notice or input from local residents or elected officials. 

In March 2022, a three-judge panel in Benton County concluded that TWRA officers’ long standing practice of conducting warrantless searches and electronic surveillance on private property gave rise to an “intolerable risk of abusive searches” and was  “unconstitutional, unlawful and unenforceable” The agency, represented by the Tennessee Attorney General, is appealing that decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.  

Last May, a shakeup inside the agency led to the abrupt terminations of key leadership staff, including its then deputy director and two top lawyers. By then, the agency’s executive director had also announced his retirement.

It was in the midst of agency turmoil — February 2022 — that Lamar first encountered Boles, a TWRA wildlife officer since 2001 who had only recently taken on responsibilities for raptor regulation after a longtime colleague retired.

Falconry is the practice of using trained raptors — among them eagles, hawks, falcons and owls — for hunting wild game. Specifically, Tennessee law defines it as “the sport of taking quarry by means of a trained raptor.”

The birds can be legally owned for other purposes, too, including education, breeding and abatement — the use of raptors to deter human-wildlife conflicts, such as seagulls disrupting airport operations.

How the raptors are used, for sport, breeding or abatement, and whether they are exotic or native, wild-caught or captive-bred are subject to an array of state and federal regulations that Lamar was seeking to navigate.

Jones, the judge, characterized the laws as “very ambiguous, vague, a lot of puzzle pieces that don’t properly fit together.”

A state permit limits the number of raptors for use in falconry to five. The permit application alludes to the state’s definition of falconry, asking — for example: “how many years of active falconry (hunting quarry)” the applicant has.  Additionally TWRA regulates only wildlife that is native to Tennessee.

But Lamar said she wasn’t using all her raptors for hunting, and just four of Lamar’s birds are native to Tennessee.  

Falconry is the practice of using trained raptors for hunting wild game, but the birds can also me legal owned for breeding, education and deterrence of human-wildlife contact.

Lamar has a master falconry permit from the state, along with federal permits allowing her to possess unlimited numbers of raptors for education, breeding and abatement. She was seeking information from Boles about any additional state permits she required. 

Lamar was actively using her birds for breeding and education — and she hoped to get state approval for abatement: one of the jobs she has had to forgo was to control an enormous influx of Blue Starlings at the Nashville Symphony. For months, Lamar said, she sought answers from Boles, the state’s chief enforcer of raptor permits, on what other types of state permits she was required to obtain.  

Boles’ either failed to provide answers and, when he did respond to Lamar, gave responses that were “ widely divergent from that of his predecessor and decades of previous TWRA interpretation,” according to a motion filed by Lamar’s attorney.

Boles took the position that anyone with a falconry permit was limited to five raptors, regardless of whether they were also in possession of birds for other purposes. It was a position not taken by any other state wildlife agency, according to two national raptor organizations that intervened in support of Lamar in the criminal case against her. 

Laura Hazelett, president of the American Falconry Association, said she unsuccessfully sought to share that information with Boles before Lamar’s birds were seized. TWRA’s enforcement action, Hazelett said in an interview, has unsettled the greater U.S. falconry community, a group that consists of 4,000-6,000 people who practice the ancient art of using raptors to hunt quarry, raise birds of prey for education and breed them.

A friend-of-the-court brief  submitted by the North American Falconer’s Association said state permits limiting the number of birds used for falconry are not intended to apply to raptors used for other purposes.

The 2000-member organization, which helped craft federal falconry regulations, called the TWRA’s efforts to prosecute Lamar  “unprecedented” in the modern history of U.S. falconry — and a “misapplication of the law.” 

Lamar bestows a kiss on one of her raptors. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lamar bestows a kiss on one of her raptors. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We are unaware of something of this nature happening to any of our other members in recent history,” their legal brief said. “If it stands, this misinterpretation of law in Tennessee will set a precedent that will have a chilling effect on the relationship between falconers and TWRA officials.”

‘I was a homicide detective; I was a domestic violence officer’

In audio recordings of lengthy phone calls that took place between Boles and Lamar over a period of months before she filed a complaint, Boles acknowledged the laws had a lot of “gray areas.” 

When Lamar asked where she could find all the laws that applied to her birds, Boles responded “you will never be able to find them,” according to audio of a phone conversation on June 21 of last year reviewed by the Lookout

“If I can’t find them, how can I be held accountable if I don’t know about them?,” Lamar asked.

“This is the same talk we’ve had over and over again. That’s what is so frustrating, Holly. It’s the same stuff. I keep saying,” Boles replied. “Just be patient.” 

Lamar said the conversations, over a period of months, inevitably ended with Boles telling her to “hold on” about the permits she had to get to be compliant with Tennessee law. In the meantime, Lamar’s business, which included bringing groups to her property to teach them about the birds and conservation, was stalled.

“I’ve told you 100 times that I’ve got to get everything straightened out, and make it to where everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Boles told her during the same conversation. “I’m going to tell you, all these other falconers around here that are doing the same stuff, they are on my radar, too.”

Boles also told Lamar to expect an enforcement action against her, but assured her it would be minor.

“If I have to write you a ticket, it’s not going to be a major ticket,” he said. He confided in Lamar that, in all his law enforcement experience, he had never before let on to anybody they were a subject of an investigation.

“I have been in law enforcement for 31 years,” he told Lamar. “I was a homicide detective; I was a domestic violence officer when I was a police officer. In every criminal investigation I’ve ever done — TWRA, with the police department — I have never,  ever had an open conversation with somebody that I had an investigation going on with. You are the first, and that ought to tell you something.”

“I felt completely bullied,” Lamar said. She also grew increasingly fearful of what enforcement actions Boles might try to undertake, she said.

State records show that the only municipal police department Boles has worked for was the Tracy City Police Department — in 1993 and 1994. 

He was a patrolman, according to Tracy City Recorder Roxanne Futz. “To my knowledge, they never had any sort of detective in Tracy City” she said, noting homicide investigations are typically referred to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and there are no specialized domestic violence positions.

“I have been in law enforcement for 31 years,” TWRA agent Rusty Boles told Lamar. “I was a homicide detective; I was a domestic violence officer when I was a police officer.” State records show Boles worked for the Tracy City Police Department, in 1993 and 1994.

Boles also served for two years as a deputy with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Department, which has no “detective” roles; and as a campus officer for Tennessee Tech University. Jonathan Frank, a university spokesman, said last week that “I am not aware of any such crimes being investigated at the university during this period of time” 

While Boles “was not specifically assigned to a ‘homicide’ or ‘domestic violence’ division in his past employment, his responsibilities did include investigation of those types of cases when necessary,” Buck, the TWRA spokesperson said in an email.

A complaint is filed with TWRA; a search warrant follows

On July 25, 2022 Lamar sent a lengthy email of complaint to Boles, cc’ing TWRA’s oversight body, the secretary for then incoming TWRA Executive Director Jason Maxedon, the complaint email inbox. She requested a meeting with the agency’s general counsel and executive director to go over the rules. She didn’t get a response.

Just over a week later, TWRA obtained a search warrant for Lamar’s property, including her home, her phone, her vehicle and her computer. The warrant noted that Lamar exceeded the state limit of five raptors and alleged she had failed to complete required notice to the state for the purchase of a Barn Owl. 

The charges that followed — 30 misdemeanors — would not be filed until October. Lamar was in the dark about the whereabouts of her birds, many hand-raised by Lamar as chicks, and unaccustomed to other human interaction. The delay in filing charges meant Lamar “had no recourse under Tennessee law to challenge the search warrant or seek return of her birds,” said Raybin, Lamar’s attorney.

Boles conceded in court that he did not consult TWRA counsel before pursuing the warrant, and had never received training in how to interpret state law. The case was first reported by News Channel 5.

Holly Lamar discussing the confiscation of her raptors and charges levied against her -- all of which have been dropped -- by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Holly Lamar discussing the confiscation of her raptors and charges levied against her — all of which have been dropped — by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The decision to pursue a search warrant, and later charges, against Lamar was not Boles’ decision alone, according to the TWRA. It was done with the approval of a TWRA regional major, and in “consultation and approval from the District Attorney’s office, including the decision to seize all 13 birds.”

Buck, the TWRA spokesperson, said the TWRA has reviewed the case and determined Boles was not at fault.  

Boles, she said, informed Lamar she was “not in compliance with Tennessee falconry rules and provided her with guidance and recommendations for how to come into compliance.”

Buck, in a statement, also said that numerous reporting violations had occurred and that Lamar was “one bird over the legal limit for falconry use,” – a statement at odds with search warrants and other filings in the case that accused Lamar, who owned 13 raptors, of being eight birds over the limit. 

The legal decisions within TWRA are being scrutinized by the North American Falconers Association, which questioned the “legal competence” of TWRA enforcement officials.  While state regulations for falconry, breeding and possessing raptors vary, it is common across the country for master falconers to possess birds for multiple purposes.

“If a community that is subject to the oversight of a regulatory agency cannot depend on the legal competence of the agency, and reasonable conduct of its functions, the public interest in fair and efficient governance and law enforcement is subverted” the association’s legal filing said. 

Buck said last week the TWRA will be considering input from falconer’s groups on future rule language. 

‘Bittersweet because of Faith’

Lamar has her raptors home, where they sit in large enclosures in the back of her home in the Nashville suburb of Whites Creek. 

She said the end of the court case against her is “bittersweet because of Faith.” The falcon is undergoing a necropsy at the University of Tennessee to determine its cause of death and “appropriate corrective actions will be taken if warranted,” Buck, TWRA’s spokesperson, said.

Buck noted that old age was a potential contributing factor in the bird’s death and that the average lifespan for such birds is 5-7 years. 

Lamar called that “misleading at best.” The average lifespan of 5-7 years applies only to birds in the wild, she said, but captive peregrine falcons can live up to 20 years.

Lamar is uncertain what happens next, given TWRA’s continued statements defending the legal action against her.

“It’s also bittersweet because they may still be willing to take my falconry license. I feel like I am a prime target for TWRA because they know they mistreated me and my birds, and violated my Constitutional rights.”

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.