A few days after search warrants were served on Garret V. J. Elsberg’s smokeshop, his father’s house and his grandparent’s property in Okanogan County last March, and he himself was arrested and booked into jail, he posted a breezy, no-big-deal message on Facebook for his friends’ consumption.
“Case dismissed thank u judge u are a gentleman and a scholar,” he wrote.
In all likelihood Elsberg, 24, most likely meant his citation for driving with a suspended license, not what state fish and wildlife officers were really after that day, which this month resulted in major poaching charges against this one-time local athlete whose previous boastful Facebook posts provided key evidence.
According to a front-page article in a local paper late last week, Elsberg was charged in Okanogan County Superior Court with 33 counts of illegal hunting activities, including:
“eight counts of first degree unlawful hunting of big game, a count of second-degree hunting of big game, five counts of unlawful hunting on or retrieving hunted wildlife from the property of another, seven counts of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, six counts of spotlighting big game and six counts of waste of fish and wildlife.”
“We’re going to plead not guilty,” said his attorney Steve Graham of Spokane this morning. “I think that the fish and wildlife department has this wildly overblown, as is their customary style. It seems like WDFW went out of their way to whip up public sentiment against Garett Elsberg.”
That sentiment would be the friction between tribal and nontribal hunters for the state’s big game.
Elsberg is an enrolled member of the Colville Tribes, who lives on the reservation, and Graham says he is going to file a motion challenging the legitimacy of a search warrant signed by a state court judge to search his client’s property.
That’s key because state game wardens got a sealed warrant to go on a February night mission to sample a deer head at the smokeshop to see if its DNA matched a buck shot near Malott, and which led to more search warrants served on the reservation the next month.
While Graham describes himself as something of an expert on fish and game laws, and tribal jurisdictions, it’s hard to imagine a state judge wrongly granting a warrant to go onto a reservation.
“We’re going to roll up our sleeves. We have over 500 pages still to go over,” Graham said.
In the October issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine, we outlined how WDFW’s case against Elsberg came together. This is that story:
OMAK, Wash.–They called it the Pitchfork Buck, for the unique way all three tines on its right antler came together at a single point, like some Transylvanian hay rake.
As last season’s hunts drew to a close, a couple local hunters photographed the large muley as it hung out up Salmon Creek west of Pogue Mountain, in central Okanogan County. They chatted about it, and if they’re anything like this Northwest sportsman, probably secretly hoped it would make it past the late-hunt archers so they might get a shot at it this fall.
It disappeared instead, the victim of a monstrous spree killing of trophy-class bucks last fall and winter, animals that won’t be available for harvest by hunters this season.
AS LOCAL PROSECUTORS PREPARED TO file charges against several locals for allegedly killing and wasting it and other deer on state and private lands on the west side of the Okanogan River, Northwest Sportsman obtained documents detailing the state’s investigation into the case.
Those show that Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife officers believe the bucks were largely poached at night with the aid of a spotlight, and that almost all of them were shot by one man, a 24-year-old local smoke shop owner.
The case began Nov. 21, and about 5 miles from the Pitchfork Buck’s haunt. A report of a headless deer led Officer Cal Treser to the scene west of the town of Okanogan near Loup Loup Pass. To him, it appeared as if the animal had been shot off the road with a gun. Despicable as it is, some people shoot deer (and elk) not for the meat, but for their trophy racks alone, leaving the rest of the animal to rot, or just for kicks.
Six weeks later, another officer, Jason Day, got a call about a pair of dead deer on the east side of Pogue Mtn., by a golf course just north of Okanogan. One had had its head removed. The absence of tracks in the snow showed that the second, a 1×2, hadn’t even been approached after it was shot.
Then on Jan. 7, Officer Troy McCormick investigated another headless deer, this one just south of Okanogan off the B&O North Road. DNA was taken from it as well as the beheaded buck at the golf course and the one off the Loup.
As it became clear to officers that someone or a group of people were targeting muleys for their racks alone, Jim Brown, then sergeant of the county’s game warden detachment, put out a press release asking for info and offering a $1,000 reward.
TIPS BEGAN TO COME IN. ACCORDING TO officers, a trusted informant shared their pictures of the Pitchfork Buck as well as a photo off the Facebook account of the 24-year-old man. In a post made a few days before Christmas, he poses at night with the head of a buck whose rack is a spitting image of the Pitchfork Buck.
Searching his social media account, officers found more images of bucks as well as chats implying others had been shot at night, and outside of any seasons. One, from September, was bragged up as killed with a 400-yard shot, which means with a rifle, and problematic because according to officers, the man wasn’t allowed to have firearms because of a prior domestic violence conviction.
They also learned he was an enrolled Colville Tribes member, had never held a state hunting license, and because of that, could only legally hunt on the Colville Reservation.
Officers say another public request to help solve the case led to a tip from a customer of a reservation smoke shop across from Okanogan and owned by the man and one set of grandparents. The individual reported seeing several young men pulling deer heads out of a blanket-covered hole in the snow and loading them into a pickup in mid-January.
Even if officers hoped that that apparent hasty reaction might put an end to the spree, less than two weeks later, another headless deer turned up, in an apple orchard in Malott.
Wardens gathered DNA from it. Then, after noting that the blanket at the smoke shop appeared to have been moved from the position they’d last seen it, they got a sealed warrant to see what was inside the hole. In a daring overnight recon mission in early February, three officers found a mule deer buck head. Expedited DNA testing found it to be a match with the Malott carcass, they say.
INFORMANTS CONTINUED TO COME forward. Officers say they were told that the man had bragged of shooting 29 deer over the past year; that he showed off the heads at parties and claimed they had been shot on the reservation; that he had a drug-fueled fascination with shooting large bucks; that he and others were killing the animals for their “man cards.”
Man cards are actual and imaginary cards men supposedly need “to be accepted as a respectable member of the male community. Can and should be revoked by other respectable males for doing non-respectable-male things,” according to the online Urban Dictionary.
Then, in early March, wardens served search warrants on the smoke shop, the man’s father’s house up Salmon Creek, a friend’s house west of Okanogan where they say two more bucks were also found, and his grandparents’ property in the Kartar Valley on the reservation. There, rotting in a horse trailer, were eight buck heads.
They believe one was the Pitchfork Buck. Officers doubt the animal would have had any reason to walk from Salmon Creek onto the Colville Reservation, and instead was poached on the west side of the Okanogan as it fits the man’s alleged pattern of behavior.
If that’s circumstantial, three of the heads were DNA matches with carcasses found outside the reservation – the golf course, B&O and one of the friend’s house’s deer.
Officers seized the man’s truck and evidence in it, two pistols whose calibers match a bullet dug out of a deer recovered at the friend’s house, and say they have reams of Facebook chats as evidence. An associate is suspected of allegedly shooting a very large-racked buck as well.
Because it and the rest of the bucks qualify for the state’s spree-poaching penalty – killing three or more animals in 24 hours or course of events – the duo could face a mandatory $6,000 penalty on top of court fines and up to a year of jail for each buck.
And stand to lose their man cards for the rest of their lives.