During the fall months, deer season is in full swing along with waterfowl, small game and upland bird hunting. Game wardens across the U.S. scramble this time of year to be in several places simultaneously. Unfortunately, the seriousness of crimes often dictate the priorities.
Such was the case several years ago in an adjacent county to mine. Wardens in that county were having more than their normal share of crimes to deal with.
Sheriff Deputies had responded to a number of “shots fired,” trespassing and spotlighting reports in effort to help the two wardens in the county. The wardens were busy handling all the calls they could; it was looking like a poaching crime wave had hit the area.
One of the wardens, Robert Fleenor, lived near me just across the county line. He had a hunch, or a gut feeling, as some people would call it. He suspected a single person, or a small group working together, was responsible and following a pattern, like criminals often do.
Warden Fleenor noticed how police-radio chatter would begin with a landowner complaint, including a report of spotlights shining, then a shot fired in the dark of night. Often, 30 minutes to an hour later, a repeat of the same scenario would occur in an adjacent area.
One particular call became especially serious when a man driving a small red sedan was confronted on a gravel driveway by a local landowner. After witnessing the crimes on his property, the landowner, a fireman by trade, decided to put an end to it himself.
In an effort to detain the criminal, though commendable, the landowner had bitten off more than he could chew. Unprepared and lucky to escape without injury, the red car sped away in reverse as the landowner was dragged and eventually thrown into the road-side ditch as the culprit made his getaway.
Outdoorsmen frequently hear "poachers are criminals," but often underestimate them and the dangers they pose. Now, with felony charges pending on a "John Doe" criminal in a red sedan, the stakes had gone even higher.
Numerous calls continued to roll in on a license plate that was registered to a pickup truck … a pickup truck with a missing license plate. This was around the time when I was contacted by Warden Fleenor to help arrange a sting operation near our joining county lines.
The plan was to use a decoy deer outfitted with greenish, reflective eyes, which look real to anyone using a spotlight at night. With interchangeable antlers, Warden Fleenor declared the little 6-pointer “ought to do it,” noting how this violator had been persistent and non-selective on buck-rack size.
Warden Fleenor, using complaint history information, had predicted which day, what time, and the specific field this fugitive would likely strike. I was willing to help and figured we might have to wait for several days, or longer, before encountering this particular criminal.
The plan was set, we met at 8 p.m. sharp to organize and prepare needed equipment for the sting. The decoy was positioned on a dead-end road, thought to have been hit by the criminal before. I took a position with good a vantage point to observe approaching vehicles while Warden Fleenor positioned closest to the decoy to witness the crime.
I sort of felt like the marine biologist character in the movie Jaws where he is underwater in a protective cage and knows it's time to remove the protective cork from spiked spear tip. It was time. Warden Fleenor came over the radio with, "Radio check … you copy me?"
It was now 9 p.m. and we'd been set up for only a few minutes, but I knew it could be a very long night. I responded, "I'm all set and think I should be able to last ‘til around 1 (a.m.)".
Warden Fleenor responded, "Did you hear that radio call about the spotlight? That wasn't far from here, so stay ready!"
His comments had me thinking, "Yeah, right. We’re going to be here all night and not see a thing.” Before my head could even be cleared of wisecracks, I spotted a set of headlights coming towards us.
I hadn't completed my radio alert to Warden Fleenor before a small family sedan slowly turned up the gravel road and headed straight toward our trap. As the car approached closer to our 6-point decoy, the car's brake lights suddenly lit up; a signal the bait was about to be taken.
BOOM! I heard the sound of a gunshot, started up my truck and instantly raced toward the sedan. I pulled in behind the shooter’s car while Warden Fleenor aligned his truck near the front; we had him blocked from trying to leave the scene.
While waiting for a poacher to take the bait of a deer decoy, game wardens will sit quietly in the dark without any lights. Once a shot is made at the decoy, the lights are turned on to let violators know they’ve been caught. (Carlos Gomez photo)
Fortunately, the shooter’s auto-loading 12 gauge – loaded with slugs and buckshot – had jammed during its reloading cycle after the shot. When we took the man into custody, his eyes were spinning and speech was slurred. The shooter admitted he had taken some drugs.
The man’s car turned out to be stolen – with stolen plates from a truck – and after a background check, he even had felony warrants out for his arrest.
Even with all of the trouble he was facing, all he seemed to be concerned with was how real the decoy looked, and if he had hit the decoy with the single shot.
Guess he was a bad shot too; we didn’t find any bullet holes in the decoy.
After it was all over, several supporting law enforcement officers offered to buy us steak dinners, claiming we saved them lots of potential future problems and work.
As rewarding it was to remove the public menace from roads and the hunting woods, we were sobered to learn the young man was jailed just two cells down from his father who was being held on unrelated felonies.
What more can be said about the need to mentor our young people to respect wildlife, the outdoors and the laws to protect all? Someday in the near future, our kids will be responsible for passing on our hunting heritage and lifestyle; be careful what you teach them.
Warden Fleenor, now Colonel Fleenor, did his homework and predicted how we would bring the violator to justice. Maybe I should ask him to predict some good stock market investments for me.
Editor’s Note: Looking for more compelling game warden stories? Watch “Wardens” on Outdoor Channel, or click here to view a list of more “Behind the Badge” stories by Carlos Gomez.