When he walked from U.S. District Court on Monday, federal game warden John Brooks ended maybe the most time-consuming case of his 17 years in wildlife law enforcement, and one of the most intensive cooperative operations involving his U.S. Fish and Wild Service agents and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Toursim game wardens.
Texas outfitter James Butler’s jail sentence had been reduced from 41 months to 10 months for his role in possibly the biggest trophy deer poaching case in U.S. history. His brother, Marlin, had his jail sentence lowered from 27 to eight months. The Butlers had some other penalties reduced, too, thanks to winning an appeal from their initial sentencing in 2011.
Brooks found plenty of good at the end of the day.
“Jail time is not often assigned in wildlife crimes,” said Brooks, lead agent in what was dubbed Operation Cimarron, “and these guys are going to jail.”
If any poachers were to get jail time, Brooks is not surprised it was the Butlers.
“They left no stone unturned when it came to violating deer hunting regs,” Brooks said. “They had people hunting without permits, exceeding bag limits, hunting the wrong units, shooting deer with illegal weapons for the season, they trespassed, used spotlights, shot deer from roads, just cut the heads off and left the meat to rot. I don’t know what (illegal activity) they didn’t do.”
The Butlers and more than 25 of their clients were sentenced for their actions.
Brooks said law enforcement officials first learned Camp Lone Star, in Comanche County, wasn’t always following the rules when state game wardens issued several citations as early as 2003. James Butler was the outfitter at the camp that mostly catered to hunters from Texas and Louisiana. Marlin Butler was a guide.
By 2006, state officials thought things were bad enough to request federal assistance. The investigation began in earnest in 2007. When the “takedown” occurred in 2009, including search warrants and interviews in Texas, Louisiana, and Kansas, about 50 officers from those states and the Fish and Wildlife Service were used.
About 120 sets of deer antlers or mounts were confiscated, and Brooks many more people could have been charged.
“There is a lot more we could have done,” Brooks said. “Some went by the wayside because of (the statue of limitations) and sometimes you just have to make priorities.”
Brooks was vague about techniques used to gather evidence and law enforcement people involved to protect future investigations and the safety of officers.
He said much of the investigation was “good ol’ surveillance work … at one point in time I had a spotlight shined over my head.”
Brooks gave much credit to state game wardens, who spent countless hours afield, and another game warden who spent hundreds of hours online investigating licensing and deer permit details.
The case was helped because the Butlers and their clients were especially bold. Some of the violations, officials said, were common knowledge amid Barber, Comanche, Clark and Kiowa counties. While the investigation was on-going, sheriff’s deputies caught the group illegally spotlighting and citations were issued. Still, it wasn’t long before they were back to their old poaching ways.
They were also proficient poaching trophy whitetails, according to Boone & Crockett measurements made on all confiscated antlers.
“The first year (of the investigation), the average buck was close to 160 (inches), then the next it was in the middle 150s,” Brooks said. “By the last year it was, like, 134. You could see every year got a few inches smaller, and at the end it really dropped off.”
Brooks said the deer seized totaled about 16,600 inches of antlers.
All charged were sentenced for violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits the transportation of illegally killed game animals across state borders. Some faced other charges. Fines and restitution totaled about $15,000 for some of the clients. Hunting, fishing, guiding and trapping privileges were revoked for up to three years for many clients, too.
James Butler’s initial sentencing included fines and restitution totaling $50,000. He was also guilty of an obstruction of justice charge for ordering evidence destroyed by his employees. Marlin Butler’s initial sentence included $20,000 in fines and restitution. Both had also been banned from hunting, fishing or trapping for three years in the U.S.
But the Butlers won an appeal questioning the monetary value of deer originally given in their first hearing. Monday, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot ruled the prosecution had not supplied adequate information to the value of deer at the time the crimes occurred, therefore he could not access a value for the re-sentencing.
Many have worried the ruling could set a precedent for other poaching cases in the future.
“The judge did not say deer do not have a value,” Brooks said of the ruling. “He said we did not prove a value at that time of the violations. That’s a subtle, but very important, difference.”
According to Brooks, James Butler had already paid his $50,000 in fines and restitution and none was refunded. His hunting and guiding ban was reduced from three years to one and he has three years supervised probation after his jail term.
Marlin Butler was ordered to pay $10,000 for fines but nothing for restitution. His revocation of hunting privileges remained at three years since he didn’t appeal it after the initial sentencing. Brooks noted the Butlers are now convicted felons, which means they are prohibited from possessing a firearm.
“Some people probably think they should have gotten nothing and some people think they should have gotten a lot more,” Brooks said. “That’s the way it usually goes.”
As for the confiscated deer, Brook hopes to arrange them in a display for public viewing with details about Operation Cimarron.
“We’ll try to get the deterrent effect out there,” Brooks said. “We want people to see all of those (poached) deer. It will take people’s breath away.”