ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. - A firefighter and another man were arrested after trying to catch an alligator that bit an 18-year-old woman who jumped on the reptile’s back, according to records released Thursday and a St. Lucie County Fire District spokeswoman.
Donald Herchenroder, a 27-year-old firefighter/paramedic with the St. Lucie County Fire District, and Peter Berger, 23, each were arrested Wednesday on a felony unlawful taking of an alligator charge after a hatchet apparently was used to pry open the gator’s mouth.
A witness told Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officials he saw three people on July 14 trying to catch a roughly 4-foot-long alligator in Palm Lake, east of U.S. 1 and south of East Midway Road. He said he walks his dog twice a day around the lake and sees an alligator there “all the time.”
“Once they caught it and brought it in he (the witness) observed the girl ... jump on the back of the alligator,” a probable cause affidavit states. “He (the witness) then observed (the woman) hitting the alligator with an object.”
Herchenroder told investigators Berger was fishing while he and the 18-year-old woman walked around the lake. It wasn’t clear whether the woman faces any charges. He said Berger, of the 6000 block of Hickory Drive, reeled in “something” and called to them. They realized it was an alligator, which he said bit the woman’s right boot.
“He stated she had no fear,” the affidavit states. “He then stated they attempted to pry the alligator off with a stick, when that didn’t work they used a hatchet.”
Berger said they went to a grocery store where he works to get bait for fishing. Berger said he got upset at the woman while at the grocery store because she had a hatchet “at her side.”
“This angered him because he didn’t want to get in trouble at work and stated, normal people don’t go walking around with hatchets on them in public,” the affidavit states.
Berger said the woman stepped on the gator’s mouth so they could retrieve the hook. He said the fishing line was 65-pound test. Line that strong typically is used when angling for large fish in saltwater.
He said the gator bit her boot and he thought Herchenroder used a hatchet to pry the gator’s mouth open. He later said he couldn’t remember who did the prying.
The witness said when the three saw him on the phone they threw the alligator back. He said they drove around the park as he was on the phone with 911. They returned to the area where the alligator was and a deputy arrived.
Herchenroder allowed investigators to look in the truck, and officials saw two fishing poles, an axe, a hatchet, rope and tackle.
An alligator trapper helped catch the gator, and heavy fishing line was seen in its mouth. The trapper said later after he euthanized the reptile he found “a large hook with a large chunk of meat, appearing to be chicken, attached to the line.”
Herchenroder and Berger were released Wednesday from the St. Lucie County jail, each on $2,500 bail, officials said.
Herchenroder is a firefighter/paramedic with the St. Lucie County Fire District, Fire District spokeswoman Catherine Chaney said. He was hired in Oct. 2006.
This is the most recent incident of St. Lucie County firefighters charged in various unrelated crimes.
In March, a Fire District firefighter was fired after being accused of spying on a 19-year-old paramedic intern as she showered at Station 15. Carlos Alberto Marti, 36, was charged with misdemeanor voyeurism.
In 2008, then firefighter Cynthia “Cindy” Economou was charged with removing a severed foot from a crash scene to use in canine training. She was sentenced to six months’ probation in May 2009 on a second-degree petit theft charge.
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