published Friday, February 4th, 2011

Arrest in snakebite death called part of larger probe

State officials have charged a man they call a "major player in the transportation and importation of poisonous snakes into the state of Tennessee," opening a new chapter in the investigation of an East Ridge man's snakebite death Sunday.

But Chuck Hurd, who was arrested by officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said his Wednesday arrest "has no bearing on Wade Westbrook's death whatsoever."

Hurd, of Gate City, Va., was "found to have transported and housed a large black plastic box containing 12 highly venomous snakes," arrest records show. He is charged with 48 counts — four counts for each snake: possession of Class 1 (dangerous) wildlife, holding such wildlife, possession without documentation and importation without permits, TWRA spokesman Dan Hicks said at a news conference Thursday.

Additional snakes are still being identified, he said.

Along with the live snakes, the TWRA confiscated a freezer full of dead snakes and other animals they say belonged to Hurd.

Hurd, 38, could face a maximum jail time of 11 months and 29 days and a $2,500 fine on each count, Hicks said.

Hicks said Hurd has more charges pending, and that the agency also hasn't ruled out the option of seeking involuntary manslaughter charges in Westbrook's death.

Westbrook died from anaphylactic shock — a severe allergic reaction — after a copperhead bit him Saturday. Police first were told a friend brought the snake to Westbrook to check its gender, but on Thursday Hicks confirmed that the snake belonged to Westbrook.

Hicks would not confirm whether Westbrook obtained the snake from Hurd, but Hurd said the snake did not come from his supply and that he had not spoken with Westbrook for more than a year.

"I usually recommend copperheads for first-time venomous snake owners, but I never recommended that Wade keep them. He didn't have the disposition to keep venomous snakes. ... I knew he was an accident waiting to happen," Hurd said in an interview.

According to Hurd, Westbrook sought him out in 2007 to learn about handling venomous snakes.

Hurd said he was there when Westbrook first was bitten by a snake in Ringgold, Ga., two years ago, and that Westbrook suffered no major complications.

In recent Facebook posts, Hurd has asked for prayers for Westbrook's family and said he's shaken and miserable about what happened.

"I know in my head that I didn't kill Wade, but I feel different in my heart. ... I may not have pulled the trigger, but I handed him a loaded gun ... without me, he would not have had the snake," a recent post states.

Hurd, a graduate of the University of Tennessee-at Chattanooga, said in the interview that the Facebook posts referred to the fact that he initially introduced Westbrook to venomous snakes.

Hicks said Hurd's arrest is expected to be just the tip of a larger investigation into transportation of dangerous reptiles and possible illegal sales. He said the TWRA believes Hurd has made frequent trips to Chattanooga and worked with snake enthusiasts in the area.

Hurd, who works with reptiles at a zoo in Virginia, said he does not sell venomous snakes in Tennessee and only trains people to work with venomous snakes in Virginia, where regulations are less restrictive.

He said he was arrested while visiting friends this week after traveling to Atlanta for a reptile convention over the weekend.

Hurd said he knew it is illegal to keep venomous snakes in Tennessee, but not that it was illegal to transport them through the state.

Hurd was released on his own recognizance and is due in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on Monday.

His Web page is devoted to venomous snakes, detailing how to catch and care for them, complete with offers to sell everything from snakes to venom samples.


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cannonball said...

It's a weird hobby. But for the life of me I cannot understand why, what this man keeps as pets is anybody's business except his own.

February 4, 2011 at 6:22 a.m.
lcoffey1 said...

I would not have a snake and do not care to have a snake. At the same time I agree they are making a big media deal out of this when they should not be.

This is yet another example of holding everyone else accountable for someones mistake. No one made Mr. Westbrook handle the snake. It was his choice and he paid the price. Very sad situation but no one it to blame but the man who was bitten.

February 4, 2011 at 8:07 a.m.
dao1980 said...

It all does seem kinda silly.

February 4, 2011 at 8:13 a.m.
Humphrey said...

its all fun and games until somebody puts an eye out

February 4, 2011 at 9:01 a.m.
TNWild said...

No big deal huh? This guy Hurd breaks the law, and one of the snakes he illegally posseses kills somebody.

Aside from the fact that it is illegal to possess these animals in the State of Tennessee, it is also illegal to collect these animals in many places. I am not amused when somebody collects wildlife illegally from our public lands. This impoverishes these lands for all. And yes, that includes venomous snakes. They play an important role in their native habitat. Encountering a venomous snake is often the highlight of any hike that I take.

I say... throw the book at this guy!

February 4, 2011 at 9:26 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Somebody broke the law by taking stuff that wasn't theirs, and then somebody died as a result of that theft. It is a serious matter.

These wildlife resources belong in the wild, especially in natural areas where they can live undisturbed by people. There are lawful ways to study, transport and sell animals. People do not need to die in order to see or examine a snake.

February 4, 2011 at 9:32 a.m.
tlshaver said...

Someone has died as a result of the snake so it is a big deal. I do believe he needs to be held accountable for having the snakes if he wasn't supposed to have them. I do NOT believe he should be charged with manslaughter. There are conflicting stories as to who the snake belonged to but no one made Mr. Westbrook handle the snake much less, Mr. Hurd. If I make the choice to play with fire, it is my fault and my fault only when I get one else.

February 4, 2011 at 9:57 a.m.

I think some of you need to re-read this says the snake belonged to Wade, this guy wasn't at his house and hadn't seen him in a long time, they were on bad terms! He was elsewhere visiting a friend after he left the Atlanta area doing a LEGAL show with his reptiles, and made a pit stop on his way through Chattanooga. Why is it harmful to anyone but the owner of all these snakes to transport them in the back of a truck in a safe container? Just let this be! Wade is gone, and he died doing what he loved, handling snakes! Let his pregnant wife and his parents grieve without all of this madness in the media...I'm sure that they don't want to see their deceased husband/son on the tv every time they turn it on! Rest in Peace, Wade. You will be missed by so many!

February 4, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.
Eric said...

I'm confused about the charges Hurd is facing. I understand the possession of these snakes in Tennessee is illegal, so I guess if he was transporting the snakes through the state to Atlanta he theoretically was in possession of Class 1 (dangerous) wildlife, possession without documentation and importation without permits. However, he isn't holding the wildlife in Tennessee, so how can he be charged with "holding such wildlife." That really seems to be a stretch. And, how else is he supposed to get these snakes to the legal convention?

And as far as the manslaughter charge, you've got to be kidding. He denies he even supplied the snake. The typical fashion of always blaming someone else for a person's bad decisions.

February 4, 2011 at 11:48 a.m.
dao1980 said...

Ha, and since we're being silly. Who doesn't get excited at the prospect of a "larger probe".

February 4, 2011 at 12:39 p.m.
timmydano said...

How is he supposed to get snakes from VA to GA without going through another state??? Snakes on a Plane!

February 4, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.

That's what I'm thinking Timmydano- but then, he still has to cross a state line up in the clouds!

February 4, 2011 at 12:55 p.m.
sarabellum said...

I knew both Chuck and Wade. I have not spoken to either of them in about two years, but I don't think Chuck would have intentionally done anything to Wade. They used to be best friends before they had a falling out over something ridiculously stupid. They both acted like kindergarteners and I don't think they've spoken since.

Something everyone should know about Wade--on more than one occasion he would get as drunk as humanly possible and handle these venomous snakes. He has a picture on his MySpace of him "free handling" an eastern diamondback rattlesnake and he once admitted to me that he was drunk when he was handling it. He got bitten in the face by a black rat snake two years ago because he was holding it at arms length and blowing in its face to make it strike at him. (also while drunk.)

What happened was a tragedy but I don't think Chuck was the reason Wade Westbrook died. And I don't think he had any sort of malicious intent in transporting those snakes. He is an educator. And that is all he was doing or will do.

February 4, 2011 at 3:02 p.m.
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