DEPARTMENTS - SPRING 1996
Fables From the Field
By Pat Dunford
The Deer Poacher Who Got Away . . . Almost
The Rifle That Never Was
The Deer on the Tractor Bucket
The Penalty Never Paid . . . Or Was It?
Investigating crimes in our midst often requires the retrieval of the most intricate and irregular varieties of evidence. I do not profess to be an expert in criminology, forensics or ballistics but it seems our combined investigative efforts in Fish and Wildlife have now advanced to most amazing levels. Sherlock Holmes himself had nothing on us.
The stories that follow are but a sampling of the many tales told around the campfire. That is often the limit of their circulation. But the actual building of a case can be fascinating and I suspect we have never really blown our own horns enough. Officers who read this article may relate to these stories through their own similar experiences. They might conclude that Dunford is talking about them, and, yes, they might be right.
The Deer Poacher Who Got Away . . . Almost
"Put on the brakes, there's a drag mark back there coming on to the road!", I yelled.
We came to a stop. It was a snowy late October morning and my partner and I were on a patrol to familiarize him with an area to which he had been temporarily assigned. We were passing through a zone where big game seasons had not yet opened and we had not yet reached the open zone.
Someone had killed a deer alongside the road, dressed it, dragged it to the road, loaded it in a vehicle and drove off. We examined the scene. Fresh snow had obliterated most of the scant evidence but it was clear the animal had been killed earlier the same morning.
After casting around for a while, checking for evidence that might identify our poacher, I noted that someone had removed the animal's testicles and flung them into the brush where they had caught on a branch. I gingerly retrieved this item from the branch and walked over to the truck.
"Well, watcha think?"
"Nah, there's nothing here, no decent tracks, nothing at all, we might as well leave, eh?"
"Yah, but here, I have a present for you." I then flung the evidence his way, causing him to reveal he was a bit squeamish as he dodged smartly aside and offered me a few choice compliments. "No, I am quite serious. You wouldn't imagine what Dr. Dead Meat (our forensic scientist, Bob McClymont) could do with those."
I picked up the testicles and placed them in the truck as my partner offered me a look you give to someone who expects to bankroll himself with lottery tickets.
Several hours and many miles and mud holes later, and after checking several groups of hunters, we met a pickup truck coming toward us. The driver was a young man travelling alone. My partner climbed in the back and closely examined a whitetail buck while I checked the man's firearm in the cab. My partner then checked the man's licence and, having forgotten the tag number, asked me to lean over and read out the numbers while he compared it to the licence. The number was confirmed and as everything seemed in order, we wished him well and saw him off. His vehicle disappeared down the road.
"By the way," I asked, "I assume you checked to see that the buck wasn't missing his testicles, right?"
"Well, I assume then that you made note of the guy's name and where he was from at least." More silence.
After some remarkable memory exercises, including a search of office records for the big game tag sold locally that had the same numbers, we came up with the fellow's name and address. My partner, feeling a bit guilty, volunteered to drop by his place later that evening just to try and assure it couldn't have been the same deer that was taken in the closed zone. My offer to come along was rejected. After all, the odds were slim it could turn out to be the same deer.
I should have hung around. Seven charges resulted, against more than one individual, including party hunting offences and closed season hunting. My partner also ran up against a rather hostile family situation during the investigation. Dr. Dead Meat made short work of matching the testicles to the deer (this was the pre-DNA era) and guilty pleas were eventually entered.
The Rifle That Never Was
Sometimes, you just miss all the fun. I had taken a short leave from my district when a call came in about a deer being shot right in front of a farmer's house at dusk. It seems the farmer and his family were eating their supper when they noticed a deer out their front window feeding right on the lawn. They decided to turn off the lights so they could watch the deer better while they continued eating. Two poacher types who were driving by also spotted the deer about this time. They decided that with no lights on in the house, no one must be home. They drove right up the driveway whereupon one man got out and shot the deer. This brought an immediate reaction from the farmer (the driveway was on the side opposite the window) who, in disbelief, dropped his fork and ran out the back door, only to be seen by the poachers, who sped away. The deer was left dead on the lawn as the poachers had abandoned any thought of retrieving it when they saw the farmer coming.
As I was away, the call from the farmer was handled by two officers from the district next to mine. A bit of good detective work by these officers revealed that another hunter in the vicinity had seen the truck also and knew the names of the occupants. An empty cartridge case was found on the driveway. A search warrant was obtained but there ended up being some missing pieces. The witnesses at the farm house had not obtained the licence plate number and no one had actually observed who had fired at the deer. Both suspects denied shooting the deer but admitted being in the area. The suspects were not cooperative in revealing the whereabouts of the rifle, which was not found. The truck was temporarily placed under seizure as the search for evidence went on and the suspects continued to be uncooperative. The case was investigated over many hours by my fellow officers. Charges were laid but proving the case beyond any reasonable doubt would be difficult. The missing rifle was the key, for if it could be found the case would improve substantially. I returned from my leave to hear all the details.
"Lemme see that inventory of truck contents." This showed all of the various odds and ends you would expect to find in a pickup truck, including some rifle cartridges. "Does this indicate there may have been some empty cartridges in the box along with some live cartridges?" There were.
A fired cartridge case can be matched to the firearm from which it came and it can also be matched to another cartridge case fired from the same gun. Our poachers lost all their smugness after it was revealed that the cartridge case that the poachers left on the driveway came from the same rifle that fired the cartridges whose casings were found in the cab of their truck.
The Deer on the Tractor Bucket
This is a story that doesn't involve much evidence gathering but I have included it as a case that came about as a result of coincidences.
A hunter I checked was hunting by himself in an area only a few minutes from his home. He was quite cooperative and admitted to being out hunting but after a few minutes of searching around his vehicle, politely informed me he had left his hunting licences at home by mistake. As he lived nearby, I decided it was more practical to just drive over there with him and check to see if he had the proper licences. He was quite happy to oblige me. I followed along behind him in the patrol unit and, possessing a bit of tunnel vision at the time, never noticed anything out of the ordinary along the way to his place. When we arrived he promptly retrieved his licences from the house and thanked me profusely for having given him the opportunity to produce them. The licences were all in order and I prepared to leave.
"Say, I guess somebody had good luck, eh?" he said.
"Oh, how so?"
"You must have seen the deer hanging on the tractor bucket by that brown house back there, didn't you?" he asked, showing a bit of surprise at my blank look.
I hadn't seen anything. Oh well. As I drove back down the road I was on the lookout for a deer hanging on a tractor bucket.
Sure enough, there it was. I quickly turned into the driveway of the farm and things began to happen. The back door of the house suddenly flew open and a man, struggling to get his second boot on, barrelled out into the yard and ran toward the tractor.
Interesting thing. When a carcass is hung on a tractor like this, it is usually hung in a head downward position. It is also necessary to have the bucket raised fairly high in order to keep the carcass clear of the ground. This leaves the big game tag, which is to be placed on the hock of the hind leg, quite high up in the air. Out of reach of most people, in fact. At least in this case it was, for the man ran up to the tractor and began jumping uselessly up and down, trying to reach the tag as I came to a stop beside him. The condition of the big game tag, which had purposely been left hanging open contrary to the legal requirement for it to be locked, could clearly be seen.
I rolled down the window. "Hey buddy, I think you better come over here and get in this truck!" I yelled at him. The man, his head down in embarrassment, walked over and got in. He told me the rest of the story.
It seems he had been out in the yard when I had driven by a bit earlier while following the other hunter. As he had spotted me well in advance, he had prepared to lock the tag on the deer before I arrived. Instead, I just drove on by. Well, this seemed to be a false alarm so after a while he became confident enough to just leave the tag unlocked as it had been. He had waited around the deer carcass a bit, just to make sure I wasn't coming back, before going into the house and taking off his boots. Too bad.
The Penalty Never Paid . . . Or Was It?
The young man's father was in my office. He was nervous and upset and there was a reason. A farmer had reported that a mule deer buck had been shot and left to waste. It seems two young fellows had asked for permission to hunt on his land but he had turned them down as he had some horses out loose and was concerned for their safety. Some time after that the farmer was out in his yard when he noticed the young men's car driving down the road nearby and turning off on to a well-travelled trail along the edge of a neighboring field. This was of little note, as they were not on his property, but only moments after their car disappeared over a hill a shot rang out. Oh well, they were not on his land anyway. The trail, in fact, was very well used during hunting season and traffic was heavy along it.
The following day the farmer discovered the mule deer buck laying dead on his property. Whoever had shot this animal had fired over a fence from the very trail in question and the shot the farmer had heard was very likely the one that had done the deed. A three-point restriction was in effect for hunting mule deer bucks in the area and the dead deer had only two points. This likely explained why the animal had been left to waste. Perhaps it had been killed by mistake but the result was still a shameful waste.
The farmer was reluctant to reveal the identity of the two young men. He was even more reluctant to implicate them as being responsible. It was quite possible that someone else could have committed the crime. I agreed. Nonetheless, I invited the father of the boy who owned the vehicle in for a chat in my office. He was a man of respectable reputation and position in the community. And yes, he wasn't happy. This was a delicate situation.
It had started out this way: "Sir, you may have no idea why I've invited you here but I am going to tell you.". As carefully as I could, I gave him all the details I knew. One thing was for sure. If his boy was involved, he was going to find out. Whether he would tell me when he found out would be a test of his character. Conversely, if his boy wasn't involved, I knew he was bloody well going to let me know about it. I might even get bopped in the kisser, he was so upset. He was particularly upset over principles. He said that while someone might make a mistake and shoot the wrong deer, the aspect of hunting on someone's property without permission and leaving the carcass to waste was more than he could accept.
"By the way, there is one more thing. What kind of rifle was your son using?" I asked him.
"He borrowed my .308," he replied, "why do you ask?"
"Well, I happen to have the bullet from that deer. If you really need to know if your rifle was used, you know we can find this out very easily."
This bit of information made him turn an even deeper shade of red. Eventually, glowering at me, off he went.
Well, I know how kids and parents are. I even know that I didn't necessarily handle this case the most appropriate way. On principle, though, I did not believe I had sufficient cause in this instance to seek a search warrant to seize the rifle and I knew the boys involved were notoriously uncooperative little beggars. Because of this, interviewing them directly was not likely to reveal much.
The man never came back to see me. I did see him around town often enough though. Each time he saw me he did his best to get as far away from me as quickly as he could. Once in a while I'd even wave to him and indicate friendliness. This never slowed him down once. Seems he had something preying on his mind. Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to that rifle. The serial number may not even be readable by now, after all that time it may have spent keeping the fish company at the bottom of a river.
The true measure of justice is difficult to judge. No fine ever reached government coffers in this case, but I think perhaps it was paid anyway. Maybe several times over.
As we contemplate our future investigative actions, the human side of each case will always be a factor.
Pat Dunford is a Fish and Wildlife Officer at Edmonton Headquarters.