Southwest poaching sting suspect to judge: ‘I just can’t help myself’

Hillsboro, Ohio -After a three-month undercover investigation by
the DNR Division of Wildlife, four men, charged with 28 wildlife
violations in Highland and Ross County, were convicted in what
appears to be one of the largest trophy deer poaching rings ever in
Ohio.

One of the convicted men told a judge at sentencing “I just
can’t help myself. I’m addicted to killing big deer.”

In an undercover operation dubbed “Junkyard,” investigators were
able to penetrate a tightly knit group of what they called hard
core poachers whose specialty was trophy bucks.

Charged were Jonathan Martin, 43, of Greenfield, with illegal
killing of deer and wild turkey. Martin had his hunting privileges
revoked for 20 years, he fined more than $2,500, ordered to serve
60 hours of community service, and sentenced to 180 days in jail
with time suspended pending additional wildlife violations. Martin
was previously convicted in 2003 for another illegal killing of a
trophy buck, according to the Division of Wildlife.

Also charged was Michael Martin, 40, of Greenfield, with illegal
taking of deer. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail with time
suspended pending additional wildlife violations, 40 days of
community service, his hunting privileges were revoked for three
years, and he was fined over $1,000.

William Penix, 24, of Hillsboro, was charged with multiple
counts of illegal deer killing and aiding others in illegal deer
killing. Sentenced to 180 days in jail, with time suspended pending
additional wildlife violations, Penix’s hunting privileges were
revoked for three years, and he was ordered to perform 50 hours of
community service.

Mark White, 44, of North Carolina, was charged with multiple
counts of aiding those engaged in poaching. His case is still
pending.

Together, the four individuals charged in the case were
responsible with illegally taking dozens of trophy bucks from
Highland and Ross counties, including four bucks that would likely
qualify for Boone and Crockett, according to wildlife
investigators.

“So proud were the poachers of their kills, they even had some
of their photos printed in outdoor magazines,” said an investigator
close to the operation.

Though most of the trophy bucks were killed illegally at night
with high-powered rifles, the poached deer were usually checked in
the next day as archery kills at various deer check stations around
Highland County and Ross County.

“I begin having suspicions about eight or nine years ago when a
number of dead deer with their heads cut off first appeared in
southern Highland County,” said Highland County Wildlife Officer
Jim Carnes. “Over the years, more leads came in and we begin to
piece together a puzzle that eventually led to this operation.”

Several of the trophy bucks were officially scored at various
deer scoring events held in and around Hillsboro, said one
investigator, pointing to a scoring tag still hanging from one of
the confiscated racks.

“Had the restitution bill been in effect at the time these deer
were killed,” said an officer involved in the case, “the fines
would have been in excess of $27,000.”

The restitution bill, which raises the amount that wildlife
authorities can seek for trophy bucks, went into effect in March.
The bill assesses a fine based on the financial value a trophy rack
is worth.

“The value of a trophy buck is not only in its value as a trophy
rack for hunting purposes but in its aesthetics value as well for
photographers, landowners and wildlife viewers who love to see
these trophy animals in the wild,” said Kathy Garza-Behr,
communications officer for the Division of Wildlife.

Eighteen racks were confiscated, which investigators believe to
be about three years worth of illegal deer kills between the four
men charged. A wildlife officer close to the investigation
estimates conservatively that at least six to eight of the racks
would qualify for the Buckeye Big Buck Club; three of the
confiscated racks were Boone and Crockett bucks, he said.

One double drop tine buck was officially scored at 191
nontypical, another with forked dropped tines scored 2061/8
nontypical, and another big 13-pointer scored 171. The previous
conviction of Jonathan Martin resulted in the confiscation of a
non-typical 18-point buck that scored 180 B&C points.

Officers with the Division of Wildlife seized more than 150
pieces of evidence, including rifles, archery gear, deer racks,
deer meat, meat processing equipment, drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Perhaps most noteworthy was the collection of more than 80
photographs in a scrapbook portraying the poachers and various
family members posing with the trophy bucks they are alleged to
have been illegally killed.

The key that broke the case open, according Carnes, was an
individual who was fed up with the group’s illegal killing of
trophy deer, finally came forward with a name.

“From that name and other information collected over the years
from landowners and sportsmen, we were able to launch an undercover
operation,” said Carnes.

Carnes went on to say that most of the information used to build
this case came from personal contact with sportsmen and concerned
landowners.

“About once every 12 to 14 months someone would come forward
with information,” the wildlife officer said.

The undercover officer who broke the case, who requested
anonymity, said before an operation is launched the team considers
the validity of the complaint as well as the number of complaints
coming in. Once a pattern of complaints is established,
investigators will take a closer look, he said.

“These guys were exceptional as far as the number of deer they
killed, the size and quality of the deer they killed,” said the
undercover officer. “We hear a lot of things, but to be able to
substantiate the complaint we need evidence. But with this
particular group, we were able to substantiate the complaints. Once
we documented that, it was time to take closer look at them.

“It’s a matter of being there at the right time to witness what
they’re doing,” he said. “Guys like these don’t talk much. It seems
likes the ones who brag the most do the least, and the ones the
brag the least do the most. These guys weren’t braggers.”

Deer grow to trophy proportions in many parts of Ohio, making
them targets for illegal hunting that is hard for some to
resist.

“They’re kind of a rare group,” said the undercover officer. “To
get a group that is able to harvest that many big deer in the time
frame they killed them, that’s pretty above and beyond. It’s not
very typical.”

According to the officer, the deer were taken by a variety of
ways, including archery, muzzleloaders, rifles, while trespassing,
and during daylight and dark.

“Anything they could do wrong, they did wrong,” he said.

In addition to the alleged deer poaching, the officer said drugs
were involved, as well.

“A pretty substantial drug element involving meth use was
discovered during the investigation,” he said.

Once the case was made, search warrants were served on Feb. 9,
involving 16 officers from Wildlife District 4 and 5, and deputies
from the Highland County’s Sheriff’s Office. The case also involved
the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission.

The undercover officer pointed out that groups like this are few
and far between.

“The vast majorities of people who enjoy the outdoors don’t do
things like this, and don’t approve of things like this,” he said.
“That’s why they call and provide information on these groups.”

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