(Riverton, Wyo.) – The details of how four moose were slaughtered and then abandoned between Hudson and Arapahoe on October 15, 2012 were revealed in a change of plea hearing Friday in Ninth District Circuit Court in Riverton. The four defendants in the case, Phillip “Rocky” Hurtado and Phillip “PJ” Warren, both of Arapahoe, and Gillette residents Sammy Edlund and his fiance` Danielle Najera, all pleaded guilty in the case.
The four were originally charged with seven misdemeanor counts but they each accepted a plea bargain in which they admitted guilt for three of the allegations, including taking a big game animal-an antlered moose-in a closed season, wanton destruction of a big game animal, and entering closed property without permission.
Judge Wesley A. Roberts quizzed each of the convicted after they entered their guilty pleas about the events that led up to the slaughter, in which one of the group, Hurtado, testified that he went into the willows and brush along the edge of the Popo Agie River NE of Hudson to flush the animals out into the open. Meanwhile, Warren, Edlund and Najera testified that they were waiting on the top of a bluff overlooking the river, ready to shoot after the animals were spooked out of hiding. The poaching took place late in the day and the four testified that they tried “gutting” the two bulls even though it was dark. Najera said she had her cell phone with her and she turned on an LED light on the device that was the only light to work with. The four also only had a large knife to use and could only partially field dress two of the moose.
Each of the four said they did not realize that they were on private property, even though testimony revealed that they had to open and go through a gate to access the area where the moose were killed, which was identified as a pasture next to the river that was owned by the Majdic family.
Three of the four admitted that they knew there were moose in the area and that they had “scouted the area” in the days before the slaughter to pinpoint where the moose were located. Hurtado was forced to admit that he was looking for moose, after hearing the testimony of the other three, even though he originally insisted that he was going for deer. He also testified that he didn’t know what he was shooting at when he opened fire, except that he knew it was not a horse or cattle.
“Shoot anything that comes out of there,” Hurtado testified that he told his companions, and, according to the testimony from each of the four, they did, including Hurtado from the brush. Killed were two bull moose and two cow moose. The bulls were killed as they ran out of the brush, but one cow was hit and died in the river and the other cow was struck, but it made it across the river before collapsing and dying downstream.
Scott Browning, a wildlife investigator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, testified that the poaching “was more of a shooting gallery operation, from below and above.” He said it was difficult to know when they stopped shooting, but he said he participated in the necropsy of the four animals “and there were bullets and bullet fragments throughout each moose. It was not a pretty sight.” He also testified that the two bulls were partially field dressed, but he said “all four moose spoiled the next day because they (the four) were afraid of being caught. Four went to waste in one incident, which is highly unusual.”
Browning said during his investigation and interviews with the suspects, “All of the four had trouble placing responsibility to what happened to the cows.” Browning said a moose is a highly valued game animal, in fact the “fourth highest valued wild game (in Wyoming) behind a Grizzly Bear, which cannot be hunted, a Bighorn Sheep and a Mountain Goat.” He said the G&F had determined there were about 12 moose on the river from Lander to Riverton “and in one fell swoop they took out one-third of the p0pulation there.”
Prosecutor Ember Oakley said Edlund and Najera believed Hurtado when he told them he had tags for the animals, and they could hunt with him and Warren on the Reservation, even though they are not enrolled members. Hurtado was identified as Najera’s grandfather. Oakley said Hurtado produced a manila envelope that was filled with a number of tags, which later turned out to be for deer. Edlund only found out that they didn’t have tags for the moose until after all four animals were dead.
Browning testified that the four “should’ve known” that they didn’t have moose tags. He said only eight moose tags, four each for the two tribes on the reservation, are granted each year, and for one person to have four tags, the entire allotment for one tribe, was not believable.
Browning also said the boundary of a legal moose hunting area, #5, was located just a mile away from the poaching scene.
Roberts, Oakley and Browning all mentioned the public interest, or outrage, in the case. Browning testified that he had never seen such public interest in a paching case. “People are still talking about it today they are still calling us and they are mad as hell,” he said, “frustrated over the sheer magnitude of the crime-it’s as serious as it comes.”
Roberts asked the Game and Fish and the one Tribal Fish and Game representative at the hearing if they thought the agreement was appropriate. Jason Hunter, the G&F Wildlife Supervisor in Lander, spoke for the other two when he said “yes, we have complete confidence that many angles were covered, a lot of aspects of the crime, were covered in the agreement.” The other two wildlife officers nodded agreement.
Roberts accepted the plea deals, but he did not order a judgement of sentence, pending final details from the attorneys. He did order Edlund to be committed to the Fremont County Detention Center so he could serve the remainder of his five days at once, and he agreed that Hurtado could spend his jail term on weekends on a schedule to be determined, to allow him to continue working.
He also gave Hurtado and Warren two years to pay their respective $7,500 fines, and if they did not do so, he reminded them that would be a violation of their probation at which time they could each be jailed for up to 360 days less time served and each be required to pay $20,500 in fines that he suspended.
To read about the apologies offered at the hearing, click here.
To read about sentencing details, click here.