OKANOGAN Months of investigative work, help from the public and Facebook posts assisted state wildlife agents in tracking down three local men suspected of killing deer, decapitating them and leaving their bodies to rot.
The case, dubbed the “Okanogan County Killing Spree Case” by wildlife agents, has been referred to the Okanogan County Prosecutor’s Office for charging.
As of Sept. 23, no charges had been filed against the suspects, Garret Elsberg, 24; Ryan Bradshaw, 23, and Robert Bradshaw, 26.
Prosecuting Attorney Karl Sloan said the case “is in review for charging.” He declined further comment.
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’s printed copy is contained in a four-inch-thick three-ring binder.
“This has been a decimating event” to the area’s deer population, Christensen said in an interview. Investigators have asked for charges related to seven deer deaths, but there may be as many as 29.
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.
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.
“We were investigating all these headless deer complaints. The public kept pointing to” the same suspect, he said.
The biggest break came when wildlife agents, using one of several sealed warrants issued in the case, were able to seize a deer head and match 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. Brown has since been promoted to North-Central Washington regional director of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.
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, Okanogan. 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.
Then, on Jan. 25, officers responded to a freshly killed and beheaded deer in a Malott apple orchard near Old Highway 97.
“The deer was still warm from being shot the night before,” Day’s report said.
Brown obtained a sealed search warrant, which was executed early the next morning. A mule deer buck head was found in the hole behind the smoke shop, the report alleged.
DNA samples were submitted to the Department of Fish and Wildlife lab in Olympia and found to match the body found in Malott.
“Information continued to arrive from informants in the community,” 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 saying 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. The inmate alleged several dead deer were located at Robert Bradshaw’s home near Malott.
The report said a vehicle tracker warrant was granted for Elsberg’s vehicles, and a warrant was obtained for two houses in the Kartar Valley, the smoke shop, Robert Bradshaw’s house and Elsberg’s father’s house on Salmon Creek.
Two dead deer allegedly were found at Bradshaw’s home, and a .45-caliber bullet was removed from one deer.
Meanwhile, Elsberg was arrested for driving while suspended and a .45-caliber bullet was found in his pocket, the report said. Two .45-caliber handguns were recovered at the home of his ex-girlfriend.
The report alleged the girlfriend had taken a rifle after being tipped off about the search warrant execution, and that other people may have been involved in removing the rifle. The rifle was never found.
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.
Fish and Wildlife “feels it has an excellent case against Garret Elsberg, Ryan Bradshaw and Robert Bradshaw regarding the unlawful hunting of big game animals. The pattern of repeated behavior meets the statutory requirements for spree killing, making each deer hunting violation (a) felony-level offense,” the report.
No arrests have been made.
A separate probable cause statement seeks charges against Elsberg of first-degree unlawful hunting of big game (multiple deer killed unlawfully in closed season and/or at night, and exceeding the limit), second-degree unlawful hunting of big game (no licenses or tags), unlawful hunting on the property of another, spotlighting big game (multiple counts) and waste of fish and wildlife (multiple counts, with bodies left to waste).
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.
“This case is still under investigation as it is very large and involves multiple crimes spanning a period of several months involving numerous witnesses and suspects,” Brown wrote in an April report. “More suspected crimes are currently being uncovered during this investigation.”
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.
Similar illegal hunting apparently occurred on the reservation, they said.
“These are violations that would need to be investigated by the Colville tribal natural resource enforcement officers as violations of the tribal code,” Brown wrote.
Agents also obtained hundreds of pages of Facebook “chat” strings under warrant requests to the social media site.
“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.
Investigating wildlife officers were Christensen, Brown, Troy McCormick, Danyl Klump, C. Anderson, Chris Busching, Graham Grant and Calvin Treser.
“It came down to the media and alert people,” he said. “People want fairness.”