One of largest poaching rings in PNW faces more charges

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- Members of one of the largest poaching rings in the Pacific Northwest are facing 122 new charges in Wasco County.

The Wasco County District Attorney's office filed misdemeanor charges Tuesday against 11 men and women: Erik Martin, 24; William Haynes, 24; Kimberly Crape, 20; Eddy Dills, 56; Sierra Dills, 18; Joseph Dills, 31; Aaron Hendricks, 35; Aubri McKenna, 36; David McLeskey, 59; and Aaron Hanson, 38.

Martin and Haynes have been charged with the majority of the crimes in Wasco County. Martin is accused of 42 misdemeanor crimes regarding illegal hunting of deer dating back to fall 2016. Haynes faces 45 misdemeanor charges for hunts during the same time frame; in addition to deer, his charges involve hunts for bobcat and silver-gray squirrel.

Reports produced by Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) explain in great detail how law-enforcement officers were able to track down the people accused of illegally killing and wasting animals.

According to those reports, Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife troopers had put in place game cameras in the U.S. National Forest south of The Dalles, responding to illegal big game hunting in Wasco county that had been discovered during November and December 2016. The cameras captured photos of a truck, the location of which then led officers to an area where they found a deer carcass with the head removed.

Photos of the truck also helped troopers identify the Washington license plate, which took the troopers to Haynes and Martin. Both men confessed to killing two bench leg bucks and a silver gray squirrel – even though they admitted they didn't have the necessary licenses in order to hunt those animals. They told law enforcement they took the entire silver gray squirrel but only the heads of the deer back to a home in Longview, Washington.

Photos: Washington state poaching ring (Warning: Graphic content)

Cell phones and social media helped officers piece together more information about the poaching ring, as text messages and Facebook posts showed the poachers bragging about their kills. Searches of Haynes' and Martin's cell phones found videos of bear hunts using dogs. Then, a warrant was obtained to search the men's homes – a search which yielded "20 unlawful deer heads" taken from both Oregon and Washington.

In all, WDFW's report says its officers documented "over 50 instances we believe elk, deer, bobcat, bear, and cougar were hunted or killed unlawfully within Oregon and Washington."

"It's one of the biggest cases, if not the biggest case I've been involved with, and Washington has the same stance, based on the number of people involved and the number of illegally taken animals," Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division Lieutenant Tim Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that the poachers' actions may have had a serious impact on the population of black-tailed deer in the White River Unit – a protected unit of deer outside of The Dalles and Hood River. In October, WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci, who has since retired, told KOIN 6 News that he almost vomited when he discovered the extent of the killings.

"It made me sick to my stomach," he said at the time.

Wasco is the fourth county in Oregon charging the poaching ring with illegal hunting-related crimes. Earlier in May, Haynes, McLeskey, Hendricks and Joseph Dills were charged in Clackamas County with illegally using dogs to hunt black bears and cougars. Haynes, McLeskey, Hendricks, Joseph Dills, Eddy Dills and Crape also face misdemeanor charges in Clatsop county, to which they have all pleaded not guilty.

In Lincoln County, McLeskey and Dills will be arraigned later this month on additional charges regarding the killing of a bear using dogs.

The Wasco County charges are the first charges filed in Oregon against Sierra Dills, Wyatt Keith and Aubri McKenna.

Across the border, the members of the poaching ring have been charged in Skamania, Cowlitz, Lewis, Jefferson and Pacific counties, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Captain Jeff Wickersham. The charges in Washington state, which include felonies, are also related to illegally hunting and killing animals, including bears and bobcats.

Schwartz, of the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, explained that in Washington, the illegal killing of more than one animal can rise to be a felony-level crime.

"It's something we'd like to pursue to see if we can get a similar law in Oregon … because of the deterrents," Schwartz said.

As the cases move through separate courts in both Oregon and Washington, questions remain about the motives of the men and women involved – and their sharing of texts, photos and videos of the killings. "This I don't understand, and I don't think I'll ever understand it," WDFW police Sgt. Brad Rhoden said in October. "I don't think they'll be able to explain that."

Schwartz, meanwhile, believes social media played a role – that the men and women involved were motivated in part by the need for attention.

The sheer number of animals found killed and wasted has been "disturbing," Schwartz said.

He added, "You think of cases like this, and you wonder how many you've missed and how prolific this is."

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