Tortured Wildlife: Some of History's Most Twisted Poaching Cases

Tortured Wildlife: Some of History's Most Twisted Poaching Cases

The Boone and Crockett Club defines “fair chase” as hunting wild game in a lawful, ethical, and sportsmanlike way that doesn’t give hunters unfair or improper advantage.

On the opposite extreme are killers who eagerly and brutally attack animals that have little or no chance of escaping. Such killings so enrage and disgust investigators that they sometimes ask reporters, “Are you sure you want the details?”

These cases usually involve teenage boys and men in their early 20s who kill several animals with no intention of salvaging the meat. They usually kill after legal shooting hours and outside hunting seasons. But not always. Dave Zeug, a retired conservation warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the most barbarous act he witnessed during his 28-year career involved a man in his early to mid-20s killing one deer, in daylight, during the firearms deer season.

Zeug said he stopped his vehicle on a hill and lifted his binoculars after spotting a hunter acting oddly in a distant field. He soon realized the hunter was “herding” a severely wounded deer toward his parked vehicle.

“The deer couldn’t get away, and the guy was herding it toward his vehicle so he wouldn’t have to drag it,” Zeug said. “The deer was really struggling and floundering. It couldn’t get away, and he was prolonging its suffering. I got really pissed. As I drove around to him, I reminded myself not to show my anger. He finally shot it and killed it when he saw me approaching. I wrote him up for failing to reduce game to possession. He didn’t show remorse. I don’t recall him even acknowledging what he did. It was ugly. I hadn’t been on the job very long at that point, but that was one horror story I’ll never forget. It really upset me.”

Trapped On Ice One of Zeug’s colleagues, Warden Wayne Jeidy, recalled watching in futility as a teenager shot then stabbed two bucks to death after they became trapped atop glare ice on Lake Butte des Morts near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in December 1984. The bucks were moving along the lakeshore with two other whitetails that afternoon when a homeowner stepped outside to photograph them.

The deer fled onto the ice, which was only 2 inches thick or less in most places, with some open water visible. A buck fawn broke through near shore and couldn’t get back out. The homeowner and several neighbors telephoned the DNR office and then Jeidy for help. When he arrived, the fawn was on the ice but unable to lift its hindquarters to stand. Jeidy said the fawn had probably torn its pelvic muscles when its rear legs kept splaying on the slick ice.

The other three deer had since moved farther offshore. Jeidy said it looked like they were heading back to land farther down the shoreline, so he returned to dispatch the helpless fawn. Soon after, he heard distant shots and saw two people near the other deer about a half-mile away. “One guy was chasing the bigger of two bucks, and I saw him stab it after it fell,” Jeidy said. “I saw one deer made it ashore but I lost track of the third deer. It was getting dark by that time.”

Jeidy was wearing a float-coat but assumed the two violators weren’t wearing flotation devices, so he grabbed two float cushions and ran toward them while shouting. As he neared the scene, he found two bucks dead on the ice, and two young men holding a knife, a .22 rifle, and a bow with arrows. After questioning them, Jeidy cited a 17-year-old boy for overbagging, hunting by illegal means, and malicious waste of a natural resource. The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department also cited the boy and his adult companion with trespassing.

The bigger buck carried an 8-point rack that measured over 18 inches between the main beams. A smaller buck carried a nontypical rack with 10 points. A taxidermist mounted the 8-pointer for the local DNR office. A newspaper story about the killings appeared in the Oshkosh Northwestern on Dec. 23, 1984, sparking public outrage about the incident.

“I don’t recall the penalties but I remember the judge, Tom Williams, saying no other case in his career generated so many angry letters demanding they get the maximum allowed,” Jeidy said.

Thumping Raccoons Wardens’ horror stories often share another component: Killers often wield whatever they can grab as a weapon. “Baseball bats and billiard cues,” said retired conservation warden Mike Young when asked how three teenagers killed raccoons they pursued at night on rural roads in east-central Wisconsin in the late 1990s.

“It was some kind of contest for them,” said Young, who worked 22 years with the Wisconsin DNR. “They’d drive around looking for raccoons to thump and keep track of who clubbed the most. They got pulled over one night by the Shiocton Police Department for speeding or a broken taillight. The officer called me after he saw all these dead raccoons on the floor in the back seat. It wasn’t a real nice car.”

The youths admitted they killed the five raccoons that Young confiscated from the car. They wouldn’t admit to more killings, even though they told Young it wasn’t the first time they held the competition. “Later we heard they got 10 one night and 15 another, but we couldn’t prove it,” Young said. “We also knew they liked to exaggerate, so who knows?”

Another interesting aspect of that case was the reminder that game-law violations often run in families. “I recognized one of those guys as the grandson of an old fish pirate with a long record,” Young said. “That old guy was always spray-painting ‘DNR Sucks!’ on signs, walls, and other stuff. When I asked his grandson for some ID and he pulled out his wallet, it had ‘DNR Sucks!’ embossed on it. I asked if he got the wallet from his grandpa, and he said yes. A few years later I got him for driving the getaway car for his dad in some turkey hunting violation. Not long after that, the kid went to jail for breaking into his grandpa’s safe and stealing from it. That family kept me busy.”

Few families, however, can match the infamy and savagery of the Kuenzi clan in nearby Waupaca County, Wisconsin. Conservation Warden Ted Dremel wasn’t surprised in January 2009 when receiving a tip that Robby Kuenzi, 23, and Rory Kuenzi, 24, were suspects in a “thrill-killing” case in which three men used snowmobiles to chase and batter five deer struggling in deep snow in a farmer’s field.

Death by Snowmobile Investigators found four dead deer near a snowmobile trail by the field and a fifth deer crippled nearby. One dead deer had its stomach ripped open by the snowmobile treads. Dremel said it appeared the driver had stopped atop the deer and gunned the engine to tear the deer open. The killers dragged another deer to a tree with a rope and tied off. The struggling deer wrapped itself so tightly around the tree that it choked to death.

The case quickly drew national attention. Outraged hunters, snowmobilers, and others around the country quickly donated over $10,000 in reward money to help catch the killers. Dremel said he got calls from California, Washington State, and other distant places offering tips and urging him to find the criminals and “throw everything you got at them.”

One tip led investigators to Nicholas Hermes, 22, who told them he had accidentally hit a deer while snowmobiling with his girlfriend and Robby and Rory Kuenzi. Hermes said the brothers chased and ran over the deer, and that Rory Kuenzi dragged one to a tree so he could return later, kill it, and take it home to butcher it.

“He said they didn’t kill it because they wanted it to stay warm so it would skin easier,” Dremel said. “But they never came back for it. They left it there and it strangled itself. We were already investigating them for breaking into ice shanties nearby on White Lake, stealing equipment, and selling it. So, we were closing in on them the night we searched the farm where they lived.

“We also knew Rory Kuenzi had stolen a snowmobile after its owner left the key in the ignition,” Dremel continued. “We figured they hid the snowmobiles somewhere on the farm. We found the one Rory stole buried in brush and snow in a spruce thicket. Right on top of it was a bloody knife he used to gut a deer. I’ll never forget seeing that. It was midnight and -20 degrees, and here’s that frozen bloody knife sitting there. It was like he was taunting us.”

A Murder Rap, Too Dremel and fellow wardens and sheriff’s deputies knew the Kuenzi boys weren’t just sadists and petty thieves. Five years earlier in October 2004, Rory Kuenzi had run down Kevin McCoy, 20, with his Chevy S-10 pickup truck after fighting with McCoy an hour before at a house party. He then dragged McCoy’s body into the ditch, laid him out as if nailed to a cross, and left the scene.

Prosecutors and crime-scene investigators believed Rory Kuenzi had committed vehicular homicide, but didn’t think they had enough evidence to convict him until six years later. They took him to trial in November 2010 for homicide by intoxicated driving and felony hit-and-run. When Waupaca County Circuit Court Judge Philip Kirk sentenced Kuenzi to 23 years in prison for killing McCoy, he called him a “sociopath” and “knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.”

A year later, prosecutors took Rory Kuenzi to court again for the deer killings and convicted him of three felony counts of cruelty to animals causing death. In November 2011, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He’s serving that sentence concurrently with the homicide prison term. He was also fined $1,000 each for two citations of possessing a deer carcass out of season.

Hermes was sentenced in February 2012 to six months in jail, 30 months of probation, and over $6,000 in fines for his convictions, including three felony charges of cruelty to animals. In May 2012, Robby Kuenzi was sentenced to six months in jail, 30 months of probation, and over $6,000 in costs and fines for the felony cruelty-to-animals charges. Kuenzi also lost his hunting and fishing privileges for three years.

“All those Kuenzis were felons except one,” Dremel said. “The older brother was selling drugs and firearms to known felons, and the DCI (Division of Criminal Investigation) had their whole house wired. Rory’s still in prison. His dad got caught smuggling drugs to him. Robbie got into trouble again, too. He thought his girlfriend was in a relationship with his friend. After following her to a house and waiting, his friend came out and Robbie tried running him over with his van.”

Driven by Boredom? Dremel said most wildlife “thrill-killings,” don’t actually involve hardened felons trying to run enemies down with vehicles. More cases resemble the raccoon-thumping case mentioned earlier.

“As sick as it sounds, most thrill-kill cases involve bored teenage boys or young men who like the adrenaline rush from killing something illegally for fun,” he said. “It’s strange and it’s frustrating. They’ll say they did it because they had nothing better to do. In some cases, it becomes a game. I’ve even heard it compared to the violent video games some young men like playing, except they can act it out in real life on a living animal.”

His biggest such case involved two men, ages 19 and 20, who killed at least 46 deer in 2007 in northern Waupaca County. Dremel said they shot most of the deer at night with a barely-functional .22 bolt-action rifle that often required a tap from a ball-peen hammer to seat the bolt.

They usually aimed for the deer’s white throat patch, making it a contest to see who could consistently make the shot. “They also ran down some deer with their car and shot a few with a bow after shining their headlights on them and stepping out onto the road,” Dremel said. “They took a few for eating but they also hit some in the guts and let some run off wounded without trying to trail them. So, when I say they killed 46 deer, that’s the ones we confirmed.”

Dremel said a farmer contacted him after the young men worked his area 10 to 15 times, often keeping him up at night with the shining and shooting. The farmer was slow to anger, however, because deer numbers were high in that area and causing extensive crop damage.

When Dremel and fellow warden Jeff Knorr staked out the area one night, the poachers showed up and shot at a deer as the wardens watched. The wardens followed them and soon turned on their vehicle’s red and blue flashing lights to pull them over. Instead, the poachers accelerated and threw their rifle out a window before pulling over.

“As I interviewed one of them, I realized he was very confident, even a bit arrogant,” Dremel said. “He first denied they had a gun and wouldn't tell me everything they’d been doing. Finally, he started telling me about a deer he’d shot from the road with his bow. He described the setup and said he made a 50-yard shot. When I said, ‘Good shot,’ he kind of straightened up and said thanks. Then he started opening up. Meanwhile, my partner was still looking for the rifle they’d thrown out the window. When I suggested we take a break and go help Warden Knorr look for the gun, the guy walked right up to it and found it within 10 seconds.”

Conclusion Dremel issued several citations to the poachers, but he thinks the court system went too easy on them.

“They didn’t serve any jail time, and I think they only lost one year of hunting and fishing privileges,” Dremel said. “They knew they got off easy. They were jovial afterward and even said, ‘See you around, Ted,’ when they walked past me.

“One thing that always troubles me is trying to convince district attorneys the value of deer, turkeys, walleyes, and other natural resources in our county," Dremel concluded. "They don’t see how things like the white bass run on the Wolf River are a big part of the tourism engine. The sportsmen understand all that, and know that poachers steal high-value resources from the public. But the DAs sometimes fail them. Some DAs don’t understand the investments that hunters and anglers make in their land, recreation, fish, and wildlife. When poachers and killers abuse the public’s natural resources, they shouldn’t be laughing when they leave the courtroom.”

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