Authorities filed more than 200 charges of interstate wildlife poaching after finding dozens of headless animals ‘left to rot.’ Investigators say the case is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
This week, prosecutors in Oregon charged 11 people with misdemeanor wildlife crimes in Wasco County. The charges mark the latest chapter in a gruesome case that had puzzled authorities across state lines for years.
The crimes – unlawful taking of wildlife, waste of wildlife, using dogs to bait and hunt, criminal conspiracy, and more – were part of a poaching ring officials say was among the biggest they’ve seen, according to The Seattle Times.
The charges in Oregon come on top of nearly 200 similar charges, including 33 felony counts, in Washington. Some involved the same individuals. In total, police charged at least 17 people.
“The scope of what we can prove and what actually happened, there’s a real gap there,” Craig Gunderson, Oregon state trooper, told the Times. “We’ll never have the whole story, but the stuff we can prove is pretty gross.”
Massive Poaching Ring Busted in Oregon, Washington
The case launched in earnest in 2016 when Fish and Wildlife officers rigged motion-triggered cameras near the Washington-Oregon border. By that time, officials had seen a slew of mutilated and sometimes headless remains of bears, bobcats, deer, cougars, and elk – all left behind to rot.
“Nearly every year, it seems we have deer showing up minus their heads at the end of seasons,” Gunderson told the Seattle Times.
The cameras worked, leading to the arrest of two men. That was the break in the case needed to unravel the poaching network.
Poaching Caught on Camera
The video captured poachers in the act illegally “spotlighting” – using a spotlight to find animals by the reflection of their eyes. Soon after, authorities in Oregon spotted and pulled over a vehicle matching the one in the video, according to the Times.
The two men inside, William J. Haynes and Erik C. Martin, admitted to killing and beheading two buck deer and bringing them back to their Washington home. A search of the home revealed 27 deer heads, some in plastic bags and others covered with maggots, authorities told the Times.
Subsequent searches of the men’s phones and social media accounts led investigators to other “kill sites” and suspected poachers. It was the break in the investigation needed for authorities to ultimately make 17 arrests in Washington and Oregon.
The San Francisco Gate reported that, among evidence, authorities found incriminating text messages.
“You ready to kill everything?!” one message read.
“[W]ell duh!” another responded. “I’m a little trigger happy lol.”
The Gate also reported the poachers communicated to set up lookouts for police, indicating they knew the killings were illegal.
According to the Seattle Times, at least two men have pleaded guilty to poaching in this case.