The Night a Deer Poacher Became a Warden Killer

The Night a Deer Poacher Became a Warden Killer

Arnold J. Magoon, 47, was a fit, lean, well-liked, experienced Vermont game warden who stood 6-foot-6 and feared no one.

Magoon was nicknamed “the Jolly Green Giant” by fellow wardens. He, his wife, and two sons lived near Brandon in central Vermont. His colleagues described him as a calm professional who got the job done by knowing the hills, marshes, forests, and people of his jurisdiction. Colleagues said Magoon—an 18-year veteran of the warden force and a district supervisor with the Vermont Department of Fish and Game—had an easy-going demeanor when dealing with everyone he encountered, whether they fished, hunted, trapped, or poached.

One of Magoon’s colleagues remembers him as a self-confident officer who never doubted he could handle what each situation required. That colleague—retired warden John Kapusta, now 81—said Magoon often didn’t wear his state-issued Model 19 Smith & Wesson .357 Mag revolver. Kapusta said Magoon was more likely to use his sidearm to dispatch injured animals than confront a violator.

Maybe that explains why Magoon’s handgun was in the backseat of his Plymouth Fury patrol car—still in its holster and rolled up in his pistol belt—when a fellow warden found him sprawled on the pavement near his car the night of April 26, 1978. Magoon, unconscious and dying from a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage, succumbed 12 hours later in a nearby hospital without regaining consciousness. He was Vermont’s first, and only, conservation warden to die in the line of duty.

Hit with His Own Flashlight Investigators determined that Magoon’s killer—a deer poacher he caught in the act—used the warden’s state-issued 18-inch steel-tube flashlight to strike him in the head. The first blow from the flashlight—which held six, D-cell batteries and doubled as a police baton—sent Magoon staggering to the ground. Two quick follow-up blows kept him there.

The tragedy unfolded about 11 p.m. that day after Magoon and his wife, Lorraine, heard a shot on state forest lands up the road from their home. Lorraine said she looked out a window and saw lights in a meadow a half-mile away. Because conservation wardens are never truly off-duty, Magoon ran to his car and sped up the road while reporting the incident on his police radio.

Magoon parked after spotting a van in the meadow, got out, and stood in the van’s path to block its exit. The driver, however, accelerated and swerved past him onto the road. As the van sped past, Magoon swung his flashlight to “mark” the van, breaking a passenger-side window. He then chased the van in his patrol car with its flashing blue lights, calling in an update and requesting help. As Magoon raced after the van, he swerved to avoid a deer carcass the suspects pushed out the van’s broken window.

Although accounts differ on what happened next, investigators believe Magoon recognized the poachers after the van stopped. The driver was Scott Johnson, 24, a local who was AWOL from the Navy. With him were Ralph Bennett, 21, a local with a breaking-and-entering conviction as a teenager; and Katrina Kimball, 18, who accompanied the poachers.

Investigators think Magoon ordered Johnson out of the van and summoned him to his car so he could check Johnson’s driver’s license and vehicle registration. Magoon apparently laid his long-handled flashlight on his patrol car’s hood before examining Johnson’s paperwork with a smaller flashlight. Bennett and Kimball told investigators that Johnson was angry at Magoon for shattering his van window. They said he told them, “I’ll fix that son of a bitch,” before getting out and walking back to Magoon’s car while complaining about the broken window.

As Magoon questioned Johnson and prepared to issue citations, Johnson snatched the steel flashlight off the hood, battered Magoon, and flung the murder weapon 68 feet into the brush, where investigators later found it. They also found Johnson’s blood-spattered driver’s license and vehicle registration at the scene, suggesting Magoon was studying them and distracted when Johnson attacked.

Caught Off Guard After Johnson realized he had severely injured Magoon, he told Bennett to summon help with Magoon’s car radio. Johnson then kneeled, cleared Magoon’s throat so he could breathe, and administered first aid until another warden and the ambulance arrived. Bennett then fled the scene on foot after failing to persuade Johnson to leave, too.

“It was all so senseless,” Kapusta said. “One of Magoon’s sons went to school with Johnson, so he knew who he was. I’m speculating, but I doubt Magoon expected any trouble from him. He probably just let his guard down.”

Investigators learned the poachers had shot a deer earlier that evening in the meadow and returned around 11 p.m. to retrieve it. They spotted another deer when returning, but Johnson shot and missed. The poachers then retrieved the deer they stashed earlier and loaded it into the van just before Magoon drove up.

Johnson’s attorney later claimed the poachers thought Magoon had fired a shot through the van’s side window as it sped past him. The attorney also claimed Johnson attacked the warden because he feared for his life. Investigators found Magoon’s handgun, holster, and belt in the patrol car’s backseat and confirmed the gun hadn’t been fired.

Kapusta said Magoon was following standard procedures of the time for “marking” a vehicle when a driver refused to stop. “If we had someone trying to run, we tried to dent the side, bang a fender, or mark the window somehow so we could later identify the vehicle more easily,” he said. “That was a fairly conventional thing we were taught to do.”

Johnson, meanwhile, cradled Magoon’s head and stayed beside him until the ambulance and EMTs arrived. The responders didn’t realize Johnson was the assailant until later after questioning him and Kimball. Johnson was arraigned on homicide charges two days later but released on a $25,000 bond.

Officers located Bennett the next day after searching for him all night. Bennett and Kimball weren’t implicated in the murder, but Bennett was charged with poaching, as was Johnson.

Magoon was buried that Sunday, April 30, following a funeral that drew an estimated 800 mourners and a 100-car motorcade that stretched over a mile. Johnson, meanwhile, went into hiding while out on bond, fearing retribution from angry residents mourning Magoon.

Angry Townsfolk Articles in area newspapers reported that Brandon residents were enraged over Magoon’s death and Johnson being freed on bail. A police spokesman told a Rutland Daily Herald reporter that the public outpouring resembled a lynch mob. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. Law-enforcement officers, including wardens from the Vermont Fish & Game Department, maintained 24-hour patrols for several days around the home of Johnson’s widowed mother, who took her phone off the hook to avoid threats and hostile messages.

Nearly four years earlier, the same townsfolk had rejoiced when Johnson, then 20, was one of only 10 people to survive an airline crash on Sept. 11, 1974, in Charlotte, North Carolina, that killed the other 72 passengers and crew members.

Johnson faced second-degree murder charges when his jury trial began 10 weeks later in early July. Late that day, however, Johnson read a statement confessing he killed Magoon, thus ending the jury trial. Johnson said he didn’t kill Magoon in self-defense. He also conceded it was neither justifiable nor excusable. His attorney asked the court to decide if he committed murder or manslaughter, which carried a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

Johnson’s attorney argued the state could only prove manslaughter, and claimed Johnson was frightened, intoxicated, and not responsible for his actions. A three-judge panel heard the case the next three days, declared a “hung” court after deliberating two days, and recessed for the weekend. After resuming deliberations Monday, the judges found Johnson guilty of second-degree murder, which carried a maximum life sentence.

Five weeks later, the three-judge panel sentenced Johnson to a six- to 20-year prison term. The presiding jurist, Chittendon County Superior Court Judge Stephen B. Martin, said Johnson did “deliberately and intentionally strike the warden without due regard for the consequences.” However, Martin told Johnson: “The sentence would have been greater, but we are convinced you did not intend to kill the warden, and we note that after the assault, you stayed by the warden’s side and offered first aid.”

The sentencing reignited public outrage. In an article in the Aug. 22, 1978, issue of the Rutland Daily Herald, one of Magoon’s colleagues said: “It’s a disturbing precedent for the courts to set. Arnold was a law-enforcement officer, after all. For Johnson to get such a light sentence for killing an officer says to me that the state isn’t that concerned about us. With that kind of precedent, it may turn into open hunting season on officers.”

Johnson became eligible for parole four years later, but served eight years before being released. The sentence and eight years in prison still infuriate Kapusta. “That was an unjust sentence, no doubt about it,” he said. “He murdered a good man and served too little time for it. There was no real justice in any of it. He really got off light.”

Better Procedures and Training Kapusta said the only good to come from the tragedy was that law-enforcement agencies studied the case intently and learned from it. He said the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department used the findings to improve on-scene procedures for wardens, revamped how it trained them to stop and approach vehicles and monitor the driver and occupants.

“We dug into every study and report we could find on patrol techniques, the use of deadly force, and courses of fire,” Kapusta said. “We dug through FBI reports on shootings and firearms injuries suffered in the line of duty, and we used a computer program to assemble and analyze all of it. We learned that most officers who are severely injured or killed were within 9 feet of their assailant. We also learned they were usually within 27 feet of the assailant when realizing they must use deadly force. Things happen fast at those distances. You better be ready to act because you probably won’t get a second chance.”

Kapusta said Magoon’s death still haunts him more than four decades later, partly because he knew the man personally. “We worked just over the mountain from each other and we sometimes got together for dinner with our wives,” he said. “He was a good man; very dedicated to his family and his job. He was low-key but got the job done. He knew wildlife, he knew hunters, and he knew every method the bandits used. He went through the woods like a squirrel. He never missed anything.”

Magoon probably left himself vulnerable by not seeing Johnson as a threat, Kapusta said. “I think he assumed the guy wouldn’t do anything because the guy knew one of his sons,” Kapusta said. “But wardens can’t assume anything in those situations. You have to secure the scene, secure yourself, and never go out without your firearm strapped on. We’ve since trained for all those things. All that training is especially important for game wardens because they so often work alone.”

A Role Model for Wardens Days after the 40th anniversary of Magoon’s death, Vermont’s game wardens paid tribute to him by placing a granite memorial at his family’s residence. Magoon’s wife, Lorraine, and a son attended the ceremony, which attracted around 40 Vermont game wardens wearing their traditional red parade jackets.

The engraved words on the granite memorial read: “This stone is placed to forever remember the life of Arnold J. Magoon, state game warden, who died on April 27, 1978, while serving the people of the great state of Vermont.” The words on the memorial’s plaque, beneath a photo of Magoon in uniform, reads: “A quiet, gentle, giant of a man who moved among God’s creatures doing no harm.”

Vermont’s chief game warden, Colonel Jason Batchelder, spoke at the memorial, saying Magoon was well liked in his community for his dedication, fairness, and professionalism. “He was an excellent role model for those of us who came along in his footsteps as wardens,” Batchelder said.

Feature graphic via Hunter Spencer.

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