Whitetail Trophy Obsession: Lies, Poaching and Murder (Part 1)
There are some good criminal investigation shows on television, both fiction and based on true stories; this long-term poaching and murder case ranks with the best of them
This massive whitetail rack, a 200-inch-class, is much like the one gathered as evidence for a long-term poaching and murder case in Oklahoma. This buck was legally harvested in Northeast Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Gomez)
Are you up for a good, CSI-type who-done-it story? Here's what I witnessed; draw your own conclusions as to what happened. As always, this “Behind the Badge” story is true.
I was strolling down a hallway at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) office one day in March when I spied a huge, 200-inch-class whitetail rack – with skull cap only – sitting on a desk. It triggered me to back up a half step to inquire.
The pile of heavy antler was getting scored by the local biologist. The witness was a rough-looking, 40ish-year-old woman with long graying hair that draped all the way down to the back of her wide, western belt.
I stuck my head in the door and offered my own congratulatory "wow!" They both looked up at me with straight faces when I asked the little lady, "Did you kill that?" Without any emotion, she replied, "No."
That wasn't enough response for this inquiring mind, so I pressed on with a smile. "Who killed it?" I asked. Almost in unison, the woman and the biologist both calmly answered, "Boyfriend."
Within a year later, the woman would be dead, killed by a rifle bullet to the head, and the house where she lived would become a pile of incinerated rubble. The boyfriend, well, he ended up leaving town with only sparse belongings to his name, including the 200-inch deer shoulder mount riding in the front passenger seat.
This is the house remains after it burned. Outside in the yard, the woman was found dead from a gunshot to the head. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Gomez)
I'm a deer hunter and have a deep respect for the animal that grows a world-class set of antlers, and also consider myself a student of human behavior. It seemed pretty odd to me that any man who legally hunted and harvested such a rare animal, wouldn't care enough to want to witness it getting scored. To not care enough to partake in process indicated something amiss.
I've scored a lot of deer for others and had a few of my own measured as well. I’ve never seen an instance where the hunter didn't want to be there to see it done. I went about my business that day, but that question – why wasn’t he there? – would remain a pebble in my shoe for many months.
I later met up with the biologist that scored the rack, reviewed his notes and the trophy application submitted by the woman. It revealed a local fire station was the first official point of contact to review the animal when it was brought in to be checked after the harvest.
My next visit was with a firefighter. Check-station records turned in by the fire station indicated the animal was entered in their book on a Sunday morning, the last day of rifle season. The fireman who made the check-in pencil-entry was easy to locate, however, everyone on duty (at the station) that day had something to say about the large deer.
But one fireman, had a few especially interesting items to share about the boyfriend hunter, and the woman with him. It turns out, the fireman previously lived across the road from the couple but felt compelled to move away for his own safety.
"Those two fought like cats and dogs!" the fireman explained.
Though located in a rural area adjacent to large soybean fields, bounded by a large river and some woods, the mobile homes they each inhabited were not placed very far apart. At one point, domestic conflicts became so severe and frequent the fireman said their fights would spill out into the front yard with screaming, cursing and even gunfire.
He said both the man and woman, at different times, had fired off guns during their fights. When the fireman began experiencing high-powered rifle shots fired in random directions, he knew it was time to find a safer place to live. Frequent visits from the police, sheriff and fire personnel had little effect on the domestic chaos.
"When it was on, she was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him," the fireman explained.
I had not yet connected the dots when a few months later an acquaintance of mine living in an adjacent neighborhood (to those same soybean fields), related how he'd witnessed a chronic problem of four-wheelers traveling back and forth toward the river sandbars and adjacent wooded areas.
"They're coming from somewhere around those soybean fields and into the woods and sandbars located along the river," he said.
He complained they were riding a lot at night and he'd even seen spotlights a few times.
"You know they're chasing those deer. I know what they're doing," he said.
Then I remembered an incident from the previous deer season when I'd had a call about a deer near this same area. I'd found a monster deer carcass that had been dumped, missing only the head and shoulder cape. It was still fresh when I found it lying grotesquely on the edge of a county road.
Its feet were practically laying in one of those same soybean fields where all this had been happening. The swollen neck on the rutting beast was so large, I decided to measure it. The neck-meat just below the jaw-line taped out at 28 inches around! Without even factoring in a hide that added girth; I knew this was a monster buck. Another pebble in my shoe.
It was now approaching September of the following year, nine months after first gasping at the large rack getting scored in the ODWC office. I was anxiously anticipating the smell of gunpowder and doing some dove hunting over the monotony of the hot summer months. Then, the real break in this whole quandary suddenly appeared.
A guy I'd come to know through years of checking dove hunters, who owned a local sand plant on the river’s edge (near those same sandbars, woods, and soybeans), had called me to complain about some trespassing dove hunters. On the following Sunday, I was on the sand-plant property driving around heavy machinery trying to locate gunshots I'd heard from a distance.
While searching the area, I encountered a sand-plant employee who was little help on locating dove hunters because the loud, diesel engine of the machine he operated kept him from hearing anything. But, when we engaged in conversation about hunters in general, he brought up the problem of four-wheelers. I immediately jumped to the subject of deer hunters.
The soft spoken, almost bashful, heavy-equipment operator told me he'd had no problems with deer hunters, "except for one time last season."
I pressed him for details. The sand-plant boss had emphatically instructed him to “keep people out” so when a small, S-10 truck whizzed around his huge front-end loader, he knew he had to drop his bucket of sand and give chase.
It was still early morning and he was the only employee working. He feared he'd be in trouble if he just looked the other way on a trespasser driving in like he owned the joint. The S-10 was easy to catch because it was a two-wheel drive; after reaching the open sand bar, the truck quickly become stuck. The operator pleaded with the trespasser to leave before causing him to get fired, which afterwards the trespasser made his plea in return.
The sand-plant employee said the man was stressed out over the situation and seemed to be in a hurry. He begged the employee, "If you'll just let me pick up my deer, I'll leave right away. It's laying right over there in that tall grass."
The man driving the truck claimed he shot the giant buck the evening before while hunting on adjacent land and tracked it onto the sand-plant property. Consumed only with removing the trespasser, the employee had the man point out the deer's location, just another 100 yards from the stuck truck. He scooped his bucket under what he described as "the biggest deer he'd ever seen in his life." And a few minutes later, with deer and a little surplus sand lying in the pickup bed, the employee gently lifted the trucks rear tires out of the sand. Driving away, the trespasser was waving with profuse gratitude.
This was the same giant deer checked in at the fire station, but was it the missing head to a carcass I found dumped on a roadside just a few hundred yards away from this hunter’s house?
And was it the same giant antlers that was brought to the ODWC office for measuring by now dead girlfriend?
Watch for the conclusion of this “who done it” story in Outdoor Channel's next column of "Behind the Badge."
Like game warden stories? Watch “Wardens” on Outdoor Channel. You also can watch past episodes of “Wardens” on MyOutdoorTV.com.