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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Texas man led illegal deer hunts in Kansas

BY MICHAEL PEARCE
The Wichita Eagle

Standing before the mounted heads and antlers of about 100 deer illegally killed in Kansas, game warden John Brooks described the poaching case involving James Butler Jr. as "by far the most egregious thing I've encountered or heard of."

Butler, 42, was sentenced to more than three years in jail and ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution Tuesday in what authorities said is thought to be the largest trophy deer poaching case in history.

Tuesday's penalties, handed down in U.S. District Court in Wichita, matched a March plea agreement in which Butler pleaded guilty to helping clients illegally kill 25 of the deer. He also pleaded guilty to furnishing illegal hunting permits to clients at Camp Lone Star, a deer hunting guide service in Comanche County that he owned and operated.

Because the whitetail and mule deer bucks were transported over state lines after they were shot, the offenses are felonies under the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transportation of animals taken illegally.

Butler, of Martinsville, Texas, also pleaded guilty to attempting to destroy evidence, also a felony.

His brother, Marlin Butler, 36, a guide at the camp, is to be sentenced Friday for his part in helping clients illegally kill 25 of the deer.

A few hours after the sentencing, Brooks, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other law enforcement officials gathered at the Great Plains Nature Center to display evidence and talk about the case.

The 110 mounts and antlers were shot illegally by about 60 clients or staff at Camp Lone Star between 2005 and 2008.

An investigation found that Camp Lone Star clients, often with one of the Butlers along, poached deer with rifles during archery deer season; killed more deer than the state-mandated limit; used spotlights to shoot deer after dark; and used military-style night scopes on rifles.

Looking at the display of poached deer heads, Wichita hunter Richard Waite shook his head in frustration.

"This deprives so many legal hunters of even a chance at a buck of a lifetime," said Waite, a landowner long frustrated by poachers. "There are people who hunt legally and never see a deer like these in their lives and this is why."

Kevin Jones, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism law enforcement chief, said such poaching also takes away from the multimillion-dollar deer hunting industry in Kansas.

Many Kansas landowners lease hunting rites to their land to hunters hoping for a crack at a big buck. Kansas outfitters charge from $1,500 to more than $8,000 to out-of-state hunters wanting to shoot a trophy-class buck.

U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said the Butlers charged between $2,500 and $5,500 for guided hunts.

Ed Koger, a rancher and outfitter from Comanche County, drove to Wichita on Tuesday to see the display of poached deer and learn details of James Butler's sentence. Koger thinks some of the deer were poached on his ranch.

Trophy bucks, he said, aren't very common or easily replaced. He estimated trophy bucks make up less than 5 percent of an area's deer herd, even in areas where the herd is well managed.

At Butler's sentencing, his legal team pointed out that in some parts of Kansas there are too many deer. Some local governments, they said, are paying to have deer killed.

Asked about the statement later, Grissom said the poaching had nothing to do with reducing the local deer population.

"This was all an exercise to fatten (Butler's) pocketbook," Grissom said. "This was all about money."

At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown said, "This (case) is about violating and enforcing the law. This is not really about deer."

Butler had many supporters from Texas in the court room.

Wearing his dress Marine uniform, Arturo Garcia praised Butler for his volunteer work with the Wounded Warrior program. The program helps combat-wounded soldiers, many with severe disabilities, heal mentally through hunting trips with others.

"I am proud to call (Butler) my brother," said Garcia, one of the program's founders. "I need him on my team."

Mitchell Alison, of Austin, spoke of Butler's quality as a friend to many people. He and others urged the judge to reduce the jail sentence for the good of Butler's teenage daughter.

As well as the fines and jail time, Butler faces three years' supervised probation upon his release. During that time he can have nothing to do with hunting, fishing or trapping.

Butler is currently out on bond pending appeal of the sentencing.

Though Butler's conviction was a main goal of what was dubbed "Operation Cimarron," law enforcement officials may not be done with the case.

When asked whether charges might come against the roughly 60 clients the Butlers assisted in illegally killing deer, Grissom said, "This is an ongoing investigation, so we have no comment."

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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