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Feds: Abandoned falcon egg leads to illegal workman, cover-up

The disturbance of a nest of peregrine falcons on a South Philadelphia bridge has led authorities to file federal charges against the owner and workers of a painting company, prosecutors said.

In mid-2011, falcons living on the Girard Point Bridge fled their nest and abandoned an unhatched egg. Investigators worked to determine who had scared the birds away and discovered the company had hired a man who had entered the country illegally from Mexico. The unauthorized workman allegedly disturbed the nest, causing the adult falcons to abandon the egg, prosecutors said.

When the owner, foreman and a senior staffer were questioned about the unauthorized worker, they lied to investigators, prosecutors said.

For many years, the Girard Point Bridge has been a nesting site for peregrine falcons, a species protected by both federal and Pennsylvania law. In September 2009, Liberty Maintenance and Alpha Painting were awarded a $70 million contract by PennDOT to refurbish the span. The contract specified that the company would refrain from working near the falcons during the nesting season which runs from March 1 to June 30, according to court papers.

On June 4, 2011, foreman George Capuzello ordered two crew members, Mikhail Zubialevich and Walter Morgan to work in a restricted zone, where a pair of falcons were incubating an egg. Zubialevich, also known as 'Russian Mike,' and Morgan, also known as Walter Eduardo Morgan Gomez, proceeded to use their power tools to grind and sand next to the nest. The noise, investigators said, permanently drove the falcons away from their nest and unhatched egg.

An environmental monitor hired by the company photographed the two workmen in the restricted area and fired off emails to owner Nikolaos Frangos and officials from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Game Commission officers asked for the names of the workmen. In response, Frangos, Capuzello and Zubialevich allegedly conspired to cover up the identity of the illegally employed worker. Instead of naming Morgan, they allegedly intimidated and threatened another workman into saying he had been responsible, according to court papers.

Frangos, Capuzello and Zubialevich are charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and harboring an alien. Frangos and Capuzello are also charged with witness tampering. Capuzello is also charged with perjury and Zubialevich is also charged with making false statements.

Morgan was charged separately. In an information filed Jan. 15, federal prosecutors said Morgan illegally disturbed the nest, frightening the falcons and prompting them to abandon the nest and unhatched egg.