By Jordan Nailon / firstname.lastname@example.org
Last summer, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that, with a bit of help from their State Patrol partners in Oregon, they had cracked an unprecedented poaching ring operating primarily out of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington.
The charges alleged that more than 100 game animals were poached by the group, with many of the carcasses simply left to rot. Hound dogs were often illegally deployed by the poachers in order to tree bears and big cats, and the alleged ringleader, Eddy Dills, is believed to have used his status as campground host for the U.S. Forest Service to help perpetuate the wildlife crimes. One suspect even admitted to WDFW police that the body of a poached black bear had been stuffed inside a culvert on a logging road in order to expediently hide the evidence and get back to poaching.
While the accused seemed to be hellbent on racking up as many kills as possible within the vast expanses of Washington’s forestlands during their multiple-year poaching spree, authorities have had much less luck hunting down justice within the confines of the court of law thus far. Since the first round of recommended charges were issued back in August of last year, just one conviction has been attained. That conviction was confirmed on Nov. 2 when Bryan Tretiak, of Morton, pleaded guilty to second-degree illegal hunting of big game in Skamania County. That conviction relates to the illegal take of a black bear with the use of hounds south of Randle back in August 2015. For his crime, Tretiak was slapped with 14 days of community service and a $500 fine. Additionally, the court has stipulated that he is not allowed to own hunting dogs for two years.
According to Skamania County Prosecutor Adam Kick, his office decided to drop a number of the original criminal charges against Tretiak and accept the guilty plea after a more thorough review of the extensive case files.
“We realized later on that he really wasn’t a major player. I mean he committed some crimes without a doubt, but it looked like initially that he was, quote-unquote, ‘part of the gang,’ But when we looked closer at the report, which there is a lot of stuff going on there, it turned out that he was only present for one of the events,” Kick said. “With these guys, some of them have bad histories and two of the four are definitely involved with multiple events over time. It really was a crime spree in their case.”
Those four accused poachers that Kick referenced include the father and son duo of Eddy and Joseph Dills, along with William “Billy” Haynes, and Erik Martin, all of Cowlitz County. Those individuals are accused of the largest volume of poaching crimes as well as the most heinous acts. Many of those acts were captured on cellphone cameras and discovered by police during their investigation. Jury trial dates for those four men were supposed to begin in December but a wave of motions filed by defense attorneys on behalf of the accused have managed to push all four court dates back to June 11.
According to Kick, the exhaustive use of suppression hearings and other court procedures is to be expected in felonious cases of this magnitude.
“We talked about how they are probably going to be making motions to attempt to suppress any statements or evidence found in their phones,” said Kick. “Also, the more potential there is for punishment, then the defendants really try to spend more time parsing the evidence and going over things out of court as long they can. With cases with any kind of level of complexity, it’s actually very rare for people to resolve or go to trial very quickly.”
Kick added that while progress has been slow to develop recently, he is confident that the trials will in fact get underway sometime this summer.
“Sometimes these things take close to a year to resolve. We don’t have a ton of control over that. I mean, we can object to continuances, but for the most part the judge is going to allow the defendants to take the time they need and review the evidence,” Kick said. “We haven’t reached that part yet, but I can imagine that we have pushed them back far enough now that I would find it unlikely that they would be pushed back much farther than that.”
Kick added that although the four defendants are represented by separate lawyers, attempts are being made to keep their court dates bunched together in the event that the individuals are called to testify as witnesses in each other’s cases.
WDFW Police Captain Jeff Wickersham agreed with Kick that the glacial pace of the poaching cases is not out of the ordinary.
“Obviously with any case of this magnitude people are going to be looking at those types of hearings for the client to make sure that everything was done correctly,” Wickersham told The Chronicle. “At this point the cases are moving through the courts as we would expect.”
Wickersham added that while the defendants may be angling to have the mountain of incriminating evidence recovered from their cellphones tossed out of court, he is certain that those text messages, call logs, GPS tracking maps, graphic videos and photos will all be found to be admissible.
“We are very confident in that,” said Wickersham. “The original information came from search warrants on the Oregon side, and just to double down we got search warrants of our own when we got back to Washington.”
Wickersham proffered another guess as to why the wheels of justice seemed to bog down over winter.
“I think some people are looking at other avenues to end these and not have to be in front of a jury,” said Wickersham.
That comment echoed a statement made by other members of the WDFW police, who have noted that authorities are still actively attempting to leverage the suspects for additional information regarding additional poaching activity in the region. One source within the WDFW noted that, “Some of them have come through for us, but not all of them.”
Felony cases still awaiting an outcome in Skamania County include Eddy and Joseph Dills, Erik Martin, William Haynes and Kyle Manley. Those cases were charged in Skamania County because of where the bulk of the infractions are believed to have occurred within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
“(WDFW) tried to figure out where the acts or events occurred and that’s where they tried the crimes,” explained Kick. “Misdemeanors must have occured in the county they are tried in. With felony crimes, technically the entire state of Washington has jurisdiction, but we still generally try to file them, because of the venue rules, in the county that they occurred in.”
Three additional felony cases have come out of the WDFW investigation. Those three defendants have been charged in Lewis County Superior Court based on the suspected location of their alleged illegal activity. Those defendants are Aaron Hanson, Aaron Hendricks and David McLeskey, of the Woodland area, who were charged with first-degree animal cruelty, unlawful hunting of black bear, cougar, bobcat or lynx with dogs, and second-degree unlawful hunting of wild animals back in December.
According to Brad Meagher, senior deputy prosecutor for Lewis County, there are no plea deals in the works for those suspected poachers, and a trial date has been set for July 23.
Dating back to the first time that WDFW acknowledged their ongoing poaching investigation late last summer, the agency has promised that additional suspects would eventually be added to area court dockets. While at least four suspects have been added to the rolls since the first batch of recommended charges were released, the actual lineup of poachers has thus far failed to match that early hype from law enforcement.
Down in Skamania County, Kick says he still anticipating another related poaching case or two to find its way to his office.
“I can only say that early on when I spoke to Captain Wickersham he indicated that the investigation was ongoing and they had a lot more and that there was some urgency in charging those cases here because so much time had passed that we might risk missing the statute of limitations if we did not charge them quickly,” said Kick. “In an ideal world I think they would have sent it all to us at one time.”
On Monday, Wickersham was more reserved about the likelihood for additional poaching charges to emerge from the case evidence in possession of the WDFW.
“As far as others that haven’t been charged there are still a few that are being investigated and then charges will be referred,” said Wickersham. “The ones that we are looking at now are kind of the offshoots. There’s not additional information coming out that’s anywhere close to the scope and depth that we have so far.”