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Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Charges add up to more than $17,000 in poaching case

Zanesville, Ohio — What started as a mallard duck complaint ended in what Muskingum County officials say could be among Ohio’s largest wildlife restitution paid for illegal possession of a trophy antlered white-tailed deer.

William Garner, 65, of Zanesville, paid the Ohio DNR $17,331.70 for a buck that scored 201, after pleading no contest in January to unlawfully attaching a game tag to a deer, which had been taken by another person, and to hunter harassment. 

When Muskingum County Wildlife Officer Jeff Berry and law enforcement supervisor Brian Postlethwait first contacted Garner about a duck complaint, “Garner asked us if we were here about the big deer,” according to Berry’s investigative report obtained by Ohio Outdoor News through a public records request. 

Garner then showed officers the deer head he had stored in a garage freezer in preparation of taking the rack to a Zanesville taxidermist for mounting. 

Berry and Postlethwait inspected the deer carcass, which had been gutted, and discovered a bullet hole in its rib cage toward the hind quarters. A bullet was not recovered. At the time of the discovery, it was only legal to hunt deer by bow and arrow.

The evening before, hunter Scott Michael of Frazeysburg, contacted Berry to report a rifle shot about 6:52 p.m. coming from Garner’s property. Michael had been hunting across a road from Garner’s property at the time he heard the shot, Berry stated.

About 9 p.m. on Oct. 20, Michael told Berry he saw a deer lying in a front yard near a driveway on Garner’s property. When Michael stopped his vehicle, the deer got up and ran slowly toward a wooded lot on Garner’s property, Berry reported.

Garner told the officers he did not shoot the deer, did not a hear a shot, and said he found the deer dead in an apple orchard on his property. 

“Mr. Garner stated he didn’t know where the deer came from,” Berry wrote in his report. 

When the deer carcass was examined, it displayed a temporary tag with Garner’s name, dated Oct. 21, 6 p.m.

Postlethwait told Garner the officers were going to take the deer head and carcass to the Dillon State Park evidence facility while they conducted an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deer’s death. 

Garner was charged in Muskingum County Court with illegally tagging a deer taken by another and hunter harassment, which specified Garner prevented or attempted to prevent Michael from hunting a wild animal by spraying coyote urine on his treestand, and placed flags/pinwheels and a T-shirt in a tree intended to scare or reroute deer. 

Garner had also been photographed on a trail camera removing a food block from Michael’s hunting area because he wanted to discourage Michael from hunting near his property line, according to Berry’s findings. 

Garner, in a letter to the court, accused Michael of being a “routine trespasser” on his property to look for antler sheds and the trophy deer found shot on his property. 

Berry said he has logged 2,600 complaint calls since his being appointed wildlife officer for Muskingum County in 2012, and not one has concerned a trespass complaint about Michael. 

In a letter submitted to the court on Garner’s behalf prior to sentencing, the letter writer stated Garner’s dogs found a dead deer lying near a road on their property in mid-October. 

“Garner’s family immediately recognized the dead deer as a regular visitor to their yard for the last four years so accustomed it would seldom retreat from them or their dogs and cats,” according to the letter.

In another letter submitted to the court on Garner’s behalf,  it was stated that Garner annually finds one to three deer shot and abandoned and male deer with their racks removed. 

Garner believed the trophy-size deer found on his property was a road kill and did not contact the ODNR, according to the letter “because road-killed deer are routinely left to rot in Muskingum County ditches and people are frequently seen sawing the bucks heads off, . . . I had no idea anyone cared.”

Garner’s attorney, David Mortimer of Zanesville, filed a mitigation statement before sentencing, which accused the ODNR of slanting its report to induce prosecutors to file the charges against Garner. 

Garner returned the deceased deer to the state of Ohio in the same condition he found it, “thus completing any restitution owed to the state,” Mortimer argued. 

“ODNR saw it as an opportunity for a big pay day, taking my client’s statement but omitting all mitigating factors in their report,” Mortimer wrote, adding Garner was charged with a vague and overly broad law “written to punish not only actual poachers but also people who collect, buy, and sell deer parts.”

Rather, Mortimer argued, the trophy buck came into Garner’s possession by dropping dead on his property. 

“Garner couldn’t choose the size of the deer his dogs found or the fact that the deer had been previously shot,” Mortimer wrote.

“As with any case, ODNR officers investigated the case and handed over the evidence to the prosecutor. It is up to the prosecutor on whether or not charges are filed,” Bethany McCorkle, ODNR spokeswoman, said in an email.

“(Garner) knows and knew exactly what he was doing,” Assistant County Prosecutor John Litle wrote Mortimer in an email prior to sentencing and described Garner’s actions in another email as “a very serious offense . . . ,  and most hunters I think would agree that something has to be done about it, more so than just paying back what is owed.”

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