Obama pardons South Carolina alligator hide seller

WASHINGTON — Bobby Gerald Wilson of Summerton, S.C., may well be the first alligator poacher to receive a presidential pardon.

Wilson, a disabled former plantation manager, reached that status Friday when President Barack Obama granted him clemency for his 1985 felony conviction of having sold alligator hides to undercover federal agents just over the Georgia border from Beaufort County.

Wilson was one of eight people pardoned Friday by Obama, bringing the number of clemency grants during his administration to 17.

Wilson, 61, said he applied for the pardon six years ago under President George W. Bush and had given up hope it would ever be granted.

"I waited and waited and waited," Wilson told McClatchy. "Mine should have been done a whole lot sooner. The crime that I committed was no major crime."

Hannah August, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on Wilson's pardon.

Wilson said he was manager of the Fife Plantation, a former slave rice estate and Civil War battlefield on the Savannah Back River in Beaufort when he started killing gators and selling their hides.

Alligator hunting is now legal in South Carolina and Georgia — with a limit of one per person during the one-month season from early September to early October — but it was illegal back in 1982.

And Wilson, driven by financial need from his children's illnesses, was killing a lot more than one gator a year.

"I didn't hunt them," Wilson said. "I needed money for my kids' doctor bills. I was making good money as the plantation manager, but I had to have more money because a couple of my kids stayed sick all the time over and over. It got us to where we couldn't even buy a loaf of bread. We got on food stamps in order to stay alive."

Three decades ago, an average-size gator hide sold on the black market for $30 — compared with up to $300 now.

Wilson thought he'd found a good thing when he started selling "a whole lot" of alligator pelts — he declined to disclose the exact number — to two eager buyers in Georgia.

Wilson would kill the gators at the Fife Plantation, whose grounds he knew like the back of his hand, skin them and cross the border into Georgia with the hides.

After a month of purchases, the buyers flashed their federal badges. Wilson had been snared in a sting run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wilson said a prominent defense attorney, William Moore, helped him get a short sentence under a plea agreement that netted him three months and 18 days in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., plus 300 hours of community service.

Moore, now a federal judge in Savannah, Ga., could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Julie Stewart, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington advocacy group, welcomed the Obama pardons but criticized the president for not having shortened the sentences of other felons.

"During the campaign, the president acknowledged that federal prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders serving excessive sentences," she said. "Why, then, can't he find one to commute?"

Obama has been less lenient than most of his predecessors in bestowing pardons. His 17 clemency grants in 28 months in office would equal 54 over two terms — fewer than any two-term president except for George Washington, who issued 16.

Wilson, disabled by diabetes, has three grown children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

With his voting rights restored by the pardon, he plans to back Obama in next year's election.

"Now that he's done me a favor, I'll do him a favor," Wilson said.

The number of presidential pardons has varied widely since World War II, from the 2,044 granted by Harry Truman in almost eight years to the 77 bestowed by George H. W. Bush in a single term.

Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, gave 200 pardons, down from the 459 granted by President Bill Clinton, both over two terms.

The last South Carolinian to receive a presidential pardon before Wilson was Morris Keith Parker, a Georgetown man granted clemency in December 2008 by the younger President Bush. Parker had been convicted in 1991 of concealing information about a felony from authorities.

(Michael Doyle of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)