Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

May 1, 2024

A Case Against a Poacher

Over the course of their careers, wildlife officers encounter a variety of violations, each case presenting its own unique challenges and complexities. Among the violators exist a wide range of people who commit wildlife crimes. Some violators, through sheer ignorance, inadvertently break wildlife laws, while others, fully aware of the regulations, consciously crush them, either out of indifference or calculated risk-taking. It is the deliberate and willful violations that often demand the most attention and effort from law enforcement.

One particularly notable case, which I had the privilege of working on (with names altered to protect the identities of those involved), unfolded in the rural landscape of northwest Illinois. It began with an image depicting an unlawfully taken deer during the closed season posted on a website catering to motorcycle enthusiasts based in California. The perpetrator, covered in anonymity behind a screen name, provided no discernible personal details regarding the poached deer, thereby complicating the investigative process. I wondered if this was a really an image of an unlawfully taken deer. Seeing the post piqued my curiosity to know everything about this famous motorcycle club deer.

A harvested deer hangs upside down in a pole barn. An individual in camouflage gear with his face covered up for anonymity stands next to the deer. Overlaying the photo are three red circles with an arrow pointing to the circles indicating tools hanging on the wall of the pole barn. Text overlaying the photo says, "Similar tools and equipment in violation photograph."
Photo by Steve Beltran.

Navigating the diverse maze of the internet, especially in pursuit of anonymous wrongdoers, presents a great challenge to law enforcement. To build a solid case for prosecution, officers must painstakingly unravel the digital trails, piecing together fragments of information to identify the perpetrator, determine the location of the violation within the State of Illinois, and confirm whether the offense falls within the statute of limitations.

The incriminating post, featuring a photograph of the dead deer accompanied by a boastful statement from the offender, attracted the attention of vigilant individuals within the local community, prompting the submission of a Target Illinois Poachers (TIP) hotline complaint. As the lead investigator assigned to the case, my initial resources were limited to mere words and a solitary photograph. Yet, through hours of research, a pattern emerged: the perpetrator, a frequent contributor to the online forum, had left behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs spanning various topics, including motorcycle-related discussions and, notably, references to hunting activities, including the unlawful killing of deer. Each time the suspect posted on the forum he would share little bits of information about himself. In one post he would share his hometown information. Another included his motorcycle information. Some information about his family was also shared. Each post was innocuous enough until you put the pieces together.

Digging deeper into the online profile of the suspect, I uncovered critical clues pointing to the community where he resided, as well as the operation of a business website. Visual evidence gathered from both platforms provided corroborating links to the unlawful taking of the deer, laying the groundwork for the application of a search warrant. When I compared the photograph of the deer and an image from his business site, I could see similar buildings and tools. The business site was identified by the suspect. The other picture had no location until I matched the contents of the photographs to each other. It was this comparison that convinced a judge that the building in question contained an unlawfully taken deer.

The execution of the search warrant required meticulous planning and coordination, involving assistance from the Illinois State Police for aerial photographs and surveillance. It was imperative to be familiar with the terrain and potential hazards, ensuring the safety of the law enforcement team while executing the search warrant.

The search of the suspect’s property yielded incriminating evidence, including multiple deer carcasses and a substantial cache of illegal deer meat concealed within the freezer. Additionally, we seized the rifle implicated in the violation, along with several computers utilized for disseminating the incriminating material online. The shocking discovery of 15 deer carcasses, in various stages of decay, painted a detailed picture of the extent of the violation. During the search we also discovered other unlawful items and occupants within the premises.

A red jeep parked in a pole barn with a dirt floor. Overlaying the photo is three red circles with an arrow pointing to the circles indicating tools hanging on the wall of the barn. Text overlaying the image says, "Image from business with tools on the wall."
Photo by Steve Beltran.

After a search all the evidence must be collected and documented. In this wildlife case, we were interested mainly in the tools used to take the deer unlawfully and any deer parts in possession. The freezer was full of deer meat and the house full of hunting tools. All these items were logged into evidence. The meat was later sent off to the lab for genetic analysis to determine how many different deer the freezers contained. Per Illinois law (Illinois Wildlife Code 520 ILCS 5/2.36a), each animal has a dollar value assigned to it. Once a violator is in possession of a certain number of deer (based on their dollar amount) the charge becomes a felony based on a presumed illegal commercialization of the animal.

Further investigation revealed the suspect’s motivations: He claimed that he had a personal vendetta against the local deer population, stemming from unfortunate encounters while riding his motorcycle. He had moved out of the big city and bought a couple hundred acres down a quiet gravel road in an area full of wildlife. He never adjusted to the wild countryside. He thought he could manage the deer population with a gun to protect himself from encountering deer while driving on the local roads.

The culmination of the investigation, spanning hundreds of hours of internet searching and fieldwork, showed the commitment of law enforcement partners working together upholding wildlife laws and preserving the integrity of the Illinois whitetail population. With the case compiled, it now rests in the hands of the judicial system to determine a just verdict. The court is responsible for ensuring accountability for those who break laws intended to safeguard Illinois wildlife.

I often remind people who are reluctant to share knowledge of a violation that those wild animals belong to all of us. The deer illegally taken were important to the neighbors and ecosystem.

The deer taken with a rifle could have been your child’s first deer.

That deer illegally harvested could have been grandpa’s last deer.

Think of the missed legal opportunities for those hunters who do things the right way. If you see a violation report it. It can be done anonymously (as this case was) and turn out to be much bigger than you think.

Steven Beltran joined the Illinois Conservation Police in 2000, retiring as a Sergeant in northwest Illinois in 2024.

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