Poaching bust brings 247 charges against 20 people

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas game wardens concluded an investigation into an illegal deer hunting ring in Southeast Texas, filing 247 criminal charges against 20 offenders in December.

The case involves illegal activity spanning four counties. A total of 27 animals are known to have been killed, with 13 sets of antlers and one doe head seized as evidence.

Game wardens uncovered 606 possible criminal charges ranging from Class C misdemeanors to felonies, although ultimately 247 criminal charges were filed in late November and early December. A team of nine game wardens participated in the investigation, which eventually led to two search warrants and charges filed with six courts in four counties: Montgomery, Edwards, Liberty, and Houston. Two assistant district attorneys from Montgomery County assisted with most of the investigation.

The suspects face paying approximately $15,000 in civil restitution, a process that compensates the people of Texas for each illegally taken wild animal.

The suspects range in age from 16 to 25 years old. Most of the charges filed against them were for hunting deer at night, hunting from a public roadway, hunting during closed season, hunting from a motor vehicle and possession of illegally taken deer.

"We did consider the ages of those involved when preparing to file charges, and more charges could have been filed," said Col. Pete Flores, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law enforcement director. "We understand that young people occasionally make mistakes. But the scope and nature of this activity goes way beyond a youthful prank, and wildlife crimes cannot be tolerated in Texas. I would add that this illegal activity is not hunting, and it is not representative of youth hunters in our state."

The case began three months ago, when a man who was aware of ongoing poaching activity by a group of young men in the Splendora area northeast of Houston was driving on Highway 59. He drove by a highway billboard advertising Operation Game Thief, the Texas wildlife "crime stoppers" program that offers rewards for tips that lead to convictions. The man later told game wardens he began thinking about the message on the billboard and the ongoing poaching activity, whereupon he turned around and drove back to get the telephone number off the billboard and called OGT.

Game Wardens Dean Fitzpatrick and Brannon Meinkowsky of Montgomery County then began leading what became a two and a half month investigation of illegal hunting dating back to fall 2006. Most of the illegal activity took place in Montgomery and Edwards

Counties, with one episode each in Liberty and Houston counties. The primary targets of the illegal hunters were white-tailed buck deer.

Secondary targets were exotic wildlife species such as axis deer and black buck antelope.

Most of the incidents occurred at night, from a vehicle on a public roadway. The majority of the animals were retrieved by the suspects, but some were left behind because the animal's antlers were not considered big enough or the poachers were scared off by oncoming vehicles.

The illegal hunting took place in developed urban subdivisions as well as rural areas.

Participants were caught poaching by two different game wardens during the course of the investigation. Game wardens had been investigating the killing of a deer on the Splendora High School football field.

Afew days after that incident, Montgomery County Game Warden Alan Biggerstaff caught three suspects after they shot and killed a deer in a subdivision near Conroe. Edwards County Game Warden Cody Hatfield caught four of them hunting from the roadway near Rocksprings in Edwards County.

These two incidents were instrumental, providing a big break in the investigation that yielded names of many of the suspects.

The two incidents also show how Texas game wardens are able to communicate and share information across the state.