Game agency catches ‘thrill killers’

Franklin, Pa. — Two Venango County men have been sentenced to $11,000 in fines and restitution for the poaching of seven deer last September near Oil City, in what the Pennsylvania Game Commission has characterized as a thrill-killing spree that left the dead wildlife to waste. 

Tyler Jeffrey Brand, 20, of Oil City, and John Levi Meehan, 19, of Franklin, pleaded guilty to a slew of charges relating to the spotlighting and shooting of deer, including two eight-point bucks and two does whose carcasses were found dumped at the end of a rural road. 

The meat from three other partially-butchered does was found in nearby garbage that had been thrown into the Allegheny River.

Wildlife conservation Officer Ronda Bimber led the investigation and filed charges that included the unlawful killing of big game, using unlawful devices or methods, illegal use of lights while hunting, shooting across highways, reckless endangerment of another person, tampering with physical evidence, and possessing a loaded firearm in a vehicle. 

Littering near waters also was charged, Bimber said, because Meehan dumped deer meat from the partially-butchered does into the river in an effort to destroy evidence just prior to his apprehension.

Bimber first learned of the case Sept. 10 when a man who was looking to buy an abandoned house on Caldwell Road saw three dismembered does in the property’s garage and alerted the Game Commission.

“Only the front legs at the shoulder and the hind legs at the hip had been taken from each deer. None of them had been skinned or gutted,” said Bimber, who described the scene as extremely bloody. 

“The deer had been shot in the head with what turned out to be a 22-caliber rifle.”

The case began to unfold the following day when Bimber met with a local farmer who had called to report that he’d seen spotlighting in his fields and had heard gunshots two days earlier. Because he lived just two miles from the abandoned house, Bimber suspected there was a connection and so she set up surveillance over the next couple of nights.

Although the surveillance was uneventful, the case took an unexpected turn Sept. 15 when Bimber was driving past the farmer’s residence on her day off and spotted a bloody area and marks indicating deer had been dragged. 

She called for assistance that included Game Commission canine officer Storm, who is trained to find shell casings. “As I’m waiting for them to show, I received a call from our local mail carrier about four dead deer at the end of Caldwell Road,” Bimber said. “There were two bucks and two does.”

Storm recovered two shell casings. Also recovered, about 200 yards from the blood, were an iPhone and a bag with a receipt from a video game store with Tyler Brand’s name on it. “That was a gift,” said Bimber, who sent the phone, which turned out to belong to Meehan, to state police for analysis and proceeded to track down Brand. 

She found Brand at work at a Home Depot and when she served him with a warrant that allowed her to search his Pontiac Sunfire, she found a blood-soaked trunk, 22 shells, a spotlight, and several bloody knives.

Brand agreed to take Bimber to his apartment, where she found a rifle covered in blood.

“He was nervous, but he tried to tell me that he had shot an injured deer he’d found along the road,” Bimber said. “I told him, ‘that’s unlawful.’”

By the time Bimber located Meehan, he had disposed of the meat from the three does in the river, but soon wanted to talk, hoping for a plea agreement, and admitting they had killed the deer just for thrills, Bimber said.

“Both men came in and gave statements, that they had been playing on X-Box and decided to go out and kill some deer for real.”

“They told me how they stood up and did their shooting from the sunroof.”

By pleading guilty, the two men avoided felony charges. The $11,000 in penalties they incurred included $5,600 in restitution, or $800 per deer.

Although she has prosecuted many poaching cases, Bimber was struck by the wanton waste of wildlife in this one, she said. “The meat from seven deer could have fed a hungry family for perhaps a year. That it went to waste is unbelievable to me.”

Also disturbing was the disregard for public safety, she said. “I asked them, ‘Do you understand that you were shooting into the dark and there were houses around?’ You could have shot someone in one of those houses.”

Bimber praised the farmer, the house-hunter and the mail carrier for tipping off the Game Commission to evidence of poaching, and said it shows that public involvement is key. 

“There’s a possibility the case would have come together in the end, but without those phone calls, it would have been a much more prolonged case,” she said.

 “The people who called were super important in putting the pieces together.”

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