Help Asheville Bears closes after spending $2 million calling attention to injured animals

Help Asheville Bears took credit for Amazon discontinuing sales of bear traps and snares, but other goals never materialized, including starting a bear sanctuary and rehabilitation facility. // Photo provided by Help Asheville Bears


Help Asheville Bears has shut down after 4 1/2 years calling attention to injured bears, targeting poachers and spending $2.3 million.

The grassroots nonprofit grew out of one family’s crusade following the 2019 discovery of a bear they’d named Peaches that was suddenly missing a limb.

The family was convinced she’d been injured in a trap, and their hunt for the culprit turned into a campaign against poaching that expanded beyond bears to other animals and from Western North Carolina to all of North America.

HAB lured informants through rewards to rat out poachers and trophy hunters and amassed nearly half a million followers on social media. An offshoot group, the Poacher Strike Force, sent private investigators to follow tips that came into HAB’s hotline.

Along the way, HAB clashed with North Carolina’s wildlife agency, particularly over what was causing bears to lose a leg.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission described its relations with HAB as “at times, frustrating.”

“Generally, the focus of their passion and persistence was not backed by reliable evidence, science, or data,” a spokeswoman said.

HAB’s efforts led to some arrests but more importantly created a deterrent, said George “Jody” Williams, the group’s president.

“We made poachers so paranoid, they were putting their trucks up on lifts to look under for trackers,” said Williams, 52.

HAB took credit for Amazon discontinuing sales of bear traps and snares, but other goals never materialized, including starting a bear sanctuary and rehabilitation facility. HAB hoped to turn its poacher-busting and animal rescue work into a documentary, and the Poacher Strike Force planned an “America’s Most Wanted”-style television show.

In the end, the money wasn’t there.

HAB spent $2.3 million from 2019 through 2022, including nearly $1 million on investigative services, $642,000 on boosting Facebook posts to wider audiences and $234,000 on rewards, tax forms show.

Williams said the majority of the money came from the family that started HAB: him, his brother, Alex; their mother, Carolyn; Alex’s wife, Heather; and the brothers’ stepfather, Col. Scotty Morgan, one of the longest-serving POWs in Vietnam and a well-known figure in conservative politics in the Asheville area.

“It was bleeding us,” Jody Williams said, “and we were so tired.”

Hunting the hunters: HAB teams up with strike force

Help Asheville Bears started in August 2019 after Williams spotted the injured Peaches, a mother with three cubs, on his property in the Avery Creek area in southern Buncombe County.

HAB eventually said it had “confirmed 25 bears missing limbs” within 90 miles of Asheville, all from “trap escapes.” But state wildlife biologists debunked the theory, saying the bears’ missing limbs were most likely caused by collisions with vehicles, an explanation Williams calls “cockamamie crap.”

“Ain’t nobody in the world but them believe that,” he said.

“We made poachers so paranoid, they were putting their trucks up on lifts to look under for trackers,” said Jody Williams, co-founder and president of Help Asheville Bears. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

HAB began offering rewards that it said were funded by Scotty and Carolyn Morgan and encouraged the public to report poachers and injured bears to its phone line. In a year the rewards had expanded to “the entire US and Canada” and by 2022 to other animals besides bears, including: a horse shot and killed in Rutherford County, N.C.; a puppy with an arrow through its neck in California; an eagle shot in Reagan, Tenn.; and a red wolf shot in Tyrell County, N.C.

HAB paid Facebook fees to boost its posts about the rewards to maximize its reach to people in those areas.

As tips increased, a group of “highly trained investigators” formed the Poacher Strike Force “to aggressively stop poachers,” according to a Jan. 9, 2021, Facebook post by HAB. The for-profit strike force handled incoming tips.

Run by Tony Wisniewski, a 30-year veteran of the Raleigh Police Department, the strike force covered the U.S. and Canada and consisted of “seven-plus investigators,” which included “former law enforcement, military elite, highly skilled woodsmen, and a former wildlife lieutenant,” according to an HAB Facebook post.

In a phone interview, Wisniewski said by the time HAB ended its funding about a year ago the strike force had eight or nine employees, including “five or six out on the road.”

He said the strike force and HAB “opened up a can of worms” in North Carolina and other states about “what’s really going on out there.” He estimates the strike force investigated “about 120” tips that had legitimacy, or as Wisniewski described it, ones “that really had some teeth.”

The reports included tips about “bear pens,” cages where bears are baited and kept on private property “so that the hunters can practice with their dogs — highly illegal,” Williams said.

Other tips involved hunters killing more bears than allowed, and keeping the skins, teeth and claws as trophies. Wisniewski said HAB and the strike force received tips about bear parts possibly being sold on the Asian black market. (Some Asian cultures consider bear parts to be aphrodisiacs or to carry other health benefits.)

HAB paid the strike force a total of $553,000 in 2021 and 2022 for investigative services, tax records show.

Most of that paid for employees, travel, car rentals, and equipment, including camouflage suits, drones, and night vision goggles, Wisniewski said. The drones did not prove particularly useful because of their short battery life, he said.

“We rented a lot of cars, because you can’t drive up in the mountains twice in the same car, and everybody knows something’s wrong,” Wisniewski said.

They also kept a close eye on bakeries. He said poachers would bait bucket traps with honey buns and other sweets, enticing bears to reach in and become hopelessly snared.

“We would watch certain suspects go to the back of these bakeries and load their pickup trucks up with everything — every sweet day-old item they could fit into the back of that truck,” Wisniewski said.

‘Friction’ between HAB, wildlife commission

The strike force gathered evidence and turned it over to law enforcement. HAB does not have a precise number of arrests that came from its work. Wisniewski estimated “a couple dozen.”

“We busted a lot,” Williams said. “I can’t remember every single one of them.”

In January 2021, a West Virginia man was charged in the killing of three cubs for their paws and skins based on information provided through HAB, which paid a $10,000 reward.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission credited HAB with providing information that led to the December 2022 arrest of a man in connection with the mutilation of three bears in Woodfin. An informant received a $5,000 reward from HAB.

But other cases went nowhere. The strike force “got a ton of cooperation” in other states, but in North Carolina, “next to zero,” Wisniewski said. “It’s almost like they didn’t want to know.”

HAB said it had learned the names of nine people — through $75,000 in rewards paid to informants — who were involved in bear trapping and poaching and had “operated for decades in Buncombe and Henderson counties,” according to a February 26, 2020, Facebook post. HAB provided a “detailed report” to the wildlife commission and the N.C. attorney general’s office.

Williams said the commission didn’t sufficiently investigate the report, but Commission Chief Deputy Director Kyle Briggs disputed that. Briggs answered questions from The Watchdog via email, through a commission spokesperson.

Tony Wisniewski, a 30-year veteran of the Raleigh Police Department, ran the Poacher Strike Force. Wisniewski said the strike force and Help Asheville Bears “opened up a can of worms” in North Carolina and other states about “what’s really going on out there.” // Photo provided by Tony Wisniewski

“Our wildlife enforcement officers spent significant time investigating this report and never found credible evidence of a real suspect or crime,” Briggs said. “There were no arrests or citations issued as a result of the tip and our subsequent investigation.”

Briggs said the commission had “received numerous reports from HAB over the past years.”

One, the Woodfin case, “led to a major investigation, which brought numerous charges,” he said. Of the reports made by the strike force, Briggs said, “we do not believe any led to arrests and/or convictions.”

“They’re not made for investigating,” Williams said. “They’re made for checking licenses.”

Asheville Watchdog filed a public information request with the attorney general’s office on May 15 for records related to the report HAB said it filed. The attorney general’s office said it was working on the request. Spokeswoman Nazneen Ahmed said the office takes all safety concerns seriously, including to animals, but has limited authority and that the wildlife commission is the agency “responsible for the enforcement of North Carolina’s fishing, hunting, trapping and boating laws.

Mark Cagle, a member of the strike force and former North Carolina game warden, said the commission, like most wildlife agencies, is “understaffed and under-equipped.”

HAB publicly criticized the commission to its hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers not just over its stance on three-legged bears but its support of opening bear sanctuaries to hunting and its handling of certain calls about injured animals.

“We are certainly aware of their social media presence and their willingness to vent their frustration with NCWRC’s decisions and actions, or their perceived lack thereof,” Briggs said.

He said the commission had received “repeated phone calls and emails from people claiming to be associated with HAB alleging crimes or accusing the agency/staff of doing or not doing things.”

The relationship got contentious, Williams acknowledged, “because we called them out … do the right thing.”

Cagle said he encountered “friction” between HAB and the commission and that the commission staff was leery of being sued by HAB. They were “just hesitant to work with them because of a threat of a lawsuit,” he said.

Some on the strike force felt the commission wasn’t acting on their information, but “they didn’t have a clear understanding of what wildlife law enforcement officers could and could not do legally,” said Cagle, who retired as a lieutenant from the commission in 2020 after 26 years.

A former top FBI official brought in by HAB said the commission could have done more.

“I can tell you from my law enforcement background, there are poaching rings and there was enough evidence to convince me that some good strong law enforcement action would have brought these cases to the prosecution stage,” said Chris Swecker, a Charlotte attorney and former FBI assistant director over criminal investigations. “They just didn’t put out the effort.”

Ken Miller, another former law enforcement official who worked for HAB as an investigator, also said Wildlife Resources was “a good bit ineffective.” Miller, who spent 40 years in law enforcement, is now president of ISS, an investigative firm based in South Carolina.

“Before I beat up on [Wildlife Resources] too much, I just don’t really think that they’re geared up, staffed and equipped and prepared to do longer-term investigations,” said Miller, a former police chief of Greensboro and Greenville, South Carolina. “I think they’re more response-oriented and enforcement-oriented. And I think that’s what they’re staffed and built primarily to do, and these kinds of cases take time.”

Miller said he and his firm handled “about 10 or 11” investigations for HAB, but he’s not aware of any that led to arrests. ISS was paid for its investigation services, which included weeks-long stints in the mountains, Miller said.

Miller said HAB had an important and viable mission.

“They offered a lot of solutions and they were willing to put (up) their own money to back up the solutions,” Miller said.

Miller said he encountered plenty of evidence of illegal bear baiting and poaching, although in about five months of “the really heavy work” in the woods he did not see evidence of snares or traps.

In one Facebook video describing its work protecting “innocent animals,” HAB said it partnered “with individuals and organizations across the United States” and listed wildlife agencies, including in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

“We do not have a record of any case-related assistance from [Help] Asheville Bears, nor have our biologists had any interaction with the organization,” Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokeswoman Emily Buck said.

An Aug. 18, 2022, Facebook post from Help Asheville Bears included this photo of a bear missing part of its left front limb in Asheville. // Photo by Bill Lea

In Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Garrett T. Dietz said that “according to our law enforcement database, Help Asheville Bears is not mentioned in any case. If poaching assistance was provided, it was not documented.”

HAB put up cameras and posters and met with private landowners to help spread the word about a bear with a trap on its paw, Dietz said.

Dietz said someone from the Poacher Strike Force offered to provide drone assistance reconnaissance to the DNR, but it already had drones and declined.

Williams said he and his brother traveled to Wisconsin and used drones, locating the bear with a trap on its paw on five occasions. “And then their DNR wouldn’t even come out or do anything,” Williams said.

Regarding Tennessee, Williams said it did assist with cases, and Wildlife Resources there “actually called us and asked for assistance with a case.”

Family funded

Swecker, hired in part to increase transparency and credibility for HAB, said that before agreeing to come on board he looked into the group’s history, finances, and leaders. “My conclusion was they were legit,” he told The Watchdog.

Tax forms list HAB’s revenues as $128,537 in 2019, $492,591 in 2020, $834,930 in 2021 and $849,469 in 2022 – most of that, Williams said, from him and his family. Williams estimated he and his family contributed “90 to 95 percent” of the money, but the endeavor became “unsustainable because of lack of public support.”

“We sold T-shirts, we sold three different professionally done calendars, we had the three-legged teddy bears,” Williams said.

Tax-exempt organizations generally are not required to publicly disclose names or addresses of their donors, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

While HAB did receive one donation for $5,000, Williams said, that was rare. Most supporters were generous with their encouragement but far less so with their money.

HAB received international accolades and supportive comments like, “ ‘I’m for you. I’m backing you,’ but there’s literally no financial support,” Williams said.

HAB got “some very small donations here and there,” Swecker said, but it was “kind of self-funded,” with most of the money coming from Jody and Alex Williams.

“They had their detractors, and they were saying, ‘Oh, they’re diverting funds.’ Well, it was their own funds,” Swecker said. “I thought they did a lot of good. We got the commission, finally, to take some action on some cases.”

Swecker worked for HAB for about a year and was paid $142,732 in 2022, HAB’s tax forms show.

Jody Williams said he and his brother have been involved in real estate and until 2010 owned three stores that sold scooters, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, and “exotic Italian motorcycles.” Alex Williams declined an interview for this story.

“We made our own, we spent our own,” Williams said, referring to HAB’s revenues. “Money didn’t come in. And for the longest time, I think the first two years or more, we flat out told people we did not accept donations. We didn’t want to take it because we never wanted to be accused of that kind of stuff.”

He said no one in his family received any money from HAB, “not even reimbursement for gas for the bear calls.”

In the end, Williams said, “I lost money. My brother lost money. My parents lost money.”

Death threats, volunteers ‘exhausted’

HAB became a 24/7 operation. Williams said he responded to bear calls, sometimes several each day.

“There’s so much communication coming in from all over the world — it was overwhelming,” Williams said.

Not all of it was positive.

“We had people calling my brother’s wife and cussing her out while she was about to have a baby for fighting against poachers,” Williams said. “Me and my brother have death threats on our head.”

HAB announced on Facebook in February that it was “ending after four and a half years of serving our bears, wildlife, and animals, utilizing a reward system to protect the beautiful creatures we all love from those who seek to poach them for money or to commit acts of cruelty.”

“HAB volunteers are exhausted,” the post said.

A three-legged bear is shown on Warren Wilson Road. Help Asheville Bears posted the image on its Facebook page Aug. 21, 2019.

HAB notified the strike force about a year ago that its funding was ending, Wisniewski said.

“We were never told anything real explicit as to why, except that our funding was going to be discontinued and the funds were going to be allocated differently,” he said, noting that notification occurred via phone and a brief text message. “And that was it.”

Miller said while HAB shut down its website this year, it effectively stopped operating 15 to 17 months ago because of the expense and time involved.

Wisniewski said he worked “totally” pro bono but had a vision for generating revenue another way — reality TV.

“We had an idea going down the pike that if we ever could maybe make a TV show out of it, then that’s where I would come in,” Wisniewski said. “We were hoping one day for it to be an ‘America’s Most Wanted’ type (show) for poaching … Alex (Williams) presented it to me, and that was really my goal on the whole thing.”

Jody Williams, who describes himself as a self-taught “bear behaviorist” who learned to hunt as a youth, said HAB was creating a documentary and shot a lot of video, including filming his bear calls. But film crews and editing were too costly.

“It takes a lot of money to do stuff like that,” Williams said.

An appeal to MrBeast

It’s difficult to assess the organization’s overall impact. HAB did not post annual reports, and the group’s February Facebook post announcing its closure said a final report of HAB’s accomplishments would be released soon. But Williams said there are no resources to put it together.

HAB took credit for stopping Amazon’s “decade-long trap sales across the world” after gathering thousands of signatures on a petition and regularly encouraging its Facebook followers to email Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and others.

“We had people sending emails and calling daily,” Williams said. “They were getting hammered.”

Amazon did not respond to questions from The Watchdog about the reason for ending sales of traps.

HAB said in its 2020 state application to solicit donations that some funds would be spent on “the creation of a safe habitat for bears and care of injured bears.”

Two years later, in a Sept. 29, 2022 Facebook post, HAB reported that “unfortunately state law will not let HAB rehabilitate and help bears, though we have fought hard for this.”

Williams said he believes HAB did a lot of good for bears and has no regrets. “We educated, we made an impact, we were a big deterrent. We caught poachers.”

In the months before HAB shut down, the friction with the wildlife commission had eased, Cagle said.

Briggs, the wildlife commission’s chief deputy director, praised the group for using its platform to educate the public about “BearWise,” a commission effort to encourage the public to live safely around bears.

Swecker described the HAB principals as “very well meaning and very passionate and very committed.”

Former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker, left. shown with Help Asheville Bears President George “Jody” Williams, was hired by the group in part to increase its transparency and credibility. // Provided photo

The combination of rewards, tip line, and private investigations was unique in the country, he said.

“I don’t know of any other model like that,” Swecker said. “They raised the level of awareness about what was happening to the bears to the point where they were actually deterring some of that activity.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “What they were doing was pretty extraordinary.”

Miller said the Williams family just “couldn’t even come up for air” because of so many tips coming in. Couple that with the expense, and it was a recipe for burnout, so he views the shutdown as a function of workload and economics.

“I told them, ‘I don’t know anybody who’s invested their own resources into something like this, ever’” Miller said. “They just cared that much.”

Williams said he hopes someone with more funding and fundraising expertise will pick up where HAB left off.

In its final Facebook post, HAB said it had found the perfect replacement: MrBeast, a North Carolina native with 284 million YouTube viewers who is known for videos featuring elaborate challenges and large giveaways.

HAB provided contact information for MrBeast and urged followers to “ask him to take the torch that these bears, volunteers, and followers lit and carry it forward making it a much brighter light to protect animals from the dark forces in this world.”

The Watchdog reached out to MrBeast for comment but did not hear back by deadline.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit


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