Rogue gator suspects identified

SHADE GAP – Wildlife authorities have identified two suspects in the release of a 5-foot-long alligator, named “Halle Berry” by its owners and reportedly allowed to roam freely in their Huntingdon County house before its escape last month. The alligator, identified as female and about 5 years old, has spent most of the past two weeks at a Port Matilda wildlife refuge, relaxing in an enclosure and dining on frozen rats.

It will likely remain in Centre County until Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officers file charges against its onetime owners, a married couple.

Commission Sgt. Craig Garman, in charge of the alligator investigation, said officials won’t release the couple’s names until charges are filed in the coming weeks. Investigators identified the pair almost immediately after the story reached local news outlets, he said.

“We’d received numerous calls from the public – all pointing to the same people, who they knew had kept an alligator in their residence,” Garman said. “The word got out, and they knew we were coming.”

The couple had named the alligator “Halle Berry,” after the Academy Award-winning actress, Garman said, and allowed the reptile to wander their mobile home when outside temperatures dropped too low.

“They brought it in their house and had it walk around like a cat or a dog,” he said.

Garman said the alligator likely escaped into the surrounding wilderness. It was found within a half-mile of its home. While intentional release of non-native reptiles is a crime, other charges including reckless endangerment are possible, he noted.

The couple changed their stories repeatedly under questioning, Garman said. First, they denied owning an alligator. Then, they claimed to have sold it. Finally, he said, they suggested it had been stolen.

A group of young fishermen found the creature in a creek and called wildlife authorities on July 28.

“If it had continued to grow [in the wild], it potentially could have hurt somebody,” Garman said.

Its demeanor has been relatively pleasant, however, at the Centre Wildlife Care in Port Matilda, where director Robyn Graboski and her staff have maintained a private enclosure for the reptile.

“Halle Berry” has eaten a frozen rat, Graboski said. Alligators eat infrequently, often going weeks without seeking food, according to wildlife experts.

Graboski said she has made contact with several possible permanent homes for the alligator, primarily with educational settings in Pennsylvania.

“It’s not definite, but we’ve got some leads,” she said.