OKANOGAN An Omak man was charged Oct. 15 with 33 counts involving illegal hunting in the “headless deer” case.
Garret Victor James Elsberg, 24, was charged with eight counts of first-degree unlawful hunting of big game, a count of second-degree hunting of big game, five counts of unlawful hunting on or retrieving hunted wildlife from the property of another, seven counts of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, six counts of spotlighting big game and six counts of waste of fish and wildlife.
Bail was set at $20,000 for Elsberg, who is represented by Steve Graham of Republic.
The alleged crimes occurred between Sept. 1, 2012, and June 6-7, 2013.
Several state Department of Fish and Wildlife agents spent months investigating the case. After a call for help from the public, several people provided leads, and Facebook posts also assisted in tracking down Elsberg and two other men, Ryan Bradshaw, 23, and Robert Bradshaw, 26, who are suspected of killing deer, decapitating them and leaving their bodies to rot, probable cause statements said.
The Bradshaws have not been charged. Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Karl Sloan could not be reached for comment.
The case, dubbed the “Okanogan County Killing Spree Case” by wildlife agents, was referred to the Okanogan County Prosecutor’s Office several weeks ago.
After receiving several reports of dead and decapitated deer, wildlife “officers began to coordinate with each other on the possibility of a serial poaching,” state Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Dan Christensen wrote in a probable cause statement. “It appeared that these deer, from citizen reports, were being hunted at night with the aid of a motor vehicle.”
The statement was part of a 571-page document submitted to Sloan’s office. Christensen, one of several investigators, said one break in the case came when two outdoorsmen allegedly recognized the head of a 3x4 buck known as the “pitchfork buck” on Elsberg’s Facebook page.
The mule deer buck, familiar to people in the Salmon Creek area west of Okanogan, had three antler prongs on one side in a shape resembling a pitchfork and four prongs on the other side in a more conventional pattern, with two of the prongs in a palmated pattern, Christensen said in an interview.
The two outdoorsmen also had seen a story in The Chronicle about a rash of headless deer carcasses being found and knew someone was poaching, the sergeant said.
Wildlife agents, using one of several sealed warrants issued in the case, seized a deer head and matched it genetically to a carcass found in the Malott area, Christensen said. The carcass was found on the west side of the Okanogan River, but the head was located on the Colville Indian Reservation.
The case began last fall and continued through winter 2013 when several large mule deer bucks were found killed in the Okanogan-Malott area and left to waste, with only the heads removed, a probable cause statement by wildlife officer Jason Day said.
Among them, one was found at Rock Creek off Loup Loup Pass, two were found in an apple orchard near Okanogan, another was found on B&O Road south of Okanogan and one was found in a Malott orchard.
“With no modern firearm hunting seasons occurring at the time of the incidents and the meat being unlawfully left to spoil, the cases were each separately investigated as unlawful acts of poaching for trophy deer antlers,” Day’s report said.
Then, in mid-January, then-Sgt. Jim Brown received a tip from a “highly trusted confidential informant” with a photo allegedly showing Elsberg with a deer head believed to be from the pitchfork buck, the report said.
Brown has since been promoted to North-Central Washington regional director.
The informant also provided photos of the buck while it was alive and living in the Salmon Creek-Green Lake area.
“As a Colville member, Elsberg can hunt under tribal rules east of the Okanogan River to the Canadian border, but west of the river, he must purchase a state license and follow state law,” the report said.
Elsberg had not purchased a state hunting license, Day’s report said.
The report also said two detectives with the North Central Washington Narcotics Task Force recognized the buck.
Investigators allegedly checked Elsberg’s Facebook page and found photos of several other deer heads and quotes “implying a deer had been killed at night” and that one had been killed at more than 400 yards.
Day’s statement said Elsberg had a domestic violence conviction and is prohibited from possessing firearms.
Other tips indicated young men had been seen loading deer heads into a pickup truck from a hole in the ground behind MNB Smoke Shop, 70 Rodeo Trail Road. The shop allegedly belongs to Elsberg’s grandparents.
The report said photos of deer heads posted on Elsberg’s Facebook page were determined to be taken at the smoke shop and the Malott-area home of Elsberg’s friend, Robert Bradshaw.
A deer body found Jan. 25 in a Malott apple orchard near Old Highway 97 was matched by DNA to a mule deer buck head seized the next day behind the smoke shop, the report said.
Another person provided a photo allegedly showing Ryan Bradshaw, brother of Robert, holding a large deer head, and Elsberg allegedly boasted of killing as many as 29 deer that year.
Another tip was received that many deer heads were in a horse trailer in the Kartar Valley, and a county jail inmate gave a recorded statement alleging the Bradshaws, Elsberg and another man had been going out at night and shooting large mule deer bucks, but that only Elsberg and Ryan Bradshaw had killed them, wildlife statements said. The inmate alleged several dead deer were located at Robert Bradshaw’s home near Malott.
Agents obtained a search warrant and allegedly found two dead deer at Robert Bradshaw’s home. Eight trophy deer heads were recovered from a horse trailer in the Kartar Valley. DNA from three matched deer bodies previously recovered, including two found by investigators. One allegedly matched a headless body found at Robert Bradshaw’s home.
Additional warrants were obtained for Facebook and cellphone information.
“Facebook information posted by Elsberg, Ryan and Robert Bradshaw, Angel Nunez and Zachary Arthurs indicates the pattern of night time hunting for trophy deer had been occurring over the entire winter,” the probable cause statement said.
Probable cause statements seek charges sought against Ryan and Robert Bradshaw of second-degree unlawful hunting without a license, second-degree unlawful hunting without a transport tag, second-degree unlawful hunting in closed season, second-degree unlawful hunting after hours, second-degree unlawful hunting with aid of a motor vehicle, spotlighting of big game, waste of fish and wildlife, second-degree unlawful hunting on the Colville Indian Reservation and criminal conspiracy. At least one deer apparently was taken to a meat cutter to be wrapped, and some deer were shot and moved without the heads being cut off, the agents’ reports said.
In all, agents documented a dozen deer killed off reservation.
“It is unlawful to hunt after hours, during the hours of darkness,” Christensen wrote in his probable cause statement. In December, January and February, when most of the headless deer were found, all state modern firearms deer big game seasons are closed but the deer were found warm, indicating recent death.