CARSON CITY — Larry and Marty Hall had two massive bull elk sighted in their rifle scopes. A boom from one gun, then another, echoed across the rugged landscape along the Nevada-Idaho line.
One animal, with a majestic six-by-six antler rack, was dead. The other, a six-by-four, was mortally wounded.
Neither Larry nor his son Marty had a tag to hunt elk.
But Larry’s buddy, Frank Koski, did. Koski took back his rifle from Larry and finished off the wounded bull. The trio and Frank’s two sons, John and Andrew, then hauled out the now-tagged animal with an ATV, leaving the other to rot.
Across the way, other hunters had been scouting the same elk that day. They knew what they witnessed Nov. 6, 2010, wasn’t right.
So began a yearlong poaching investigation that involved agencies from three states, DNA analysis on frozen meat in household freezers and blood splotches lifted from an ATV tire thousands of miles from the crime scene.
“It’s the same as a homicide investigation,” said Rob Buonamici, law enforcement chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “We have to literally prove the same elements as a homicide. Except we can’t go to the mountain and talk to the elk that are left and ask them who did it.”
Over the past three decades or so, poachers have become technologically advanced, using night vision goggles, trail cameras, satellite mapping and two-way radios, among other tools. That means wardens have had to evolve as well, finding creative ways of sleuthing.
Buonamici recalled a case in the early 1980s where he took a dead deer to a veterinarian who X-rayed the bullet path. Buonamici poked a stick into the wound channel to show the angle of impact and prove the kill shot came from someone in a pickup.
These days, DNA is just as critical in animal crime investigations as it is solving human crimes.
“Our lab has been doing this since the mid-1990s,” said Elizabeth Wictum at the animal forensics lab at the University of California, Davis, where DNA collected in the Nevada case was analyzed.
The world’s largest animal forensic lab, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, opened in 1989 in Ashland, Ore.
Buonamici predicted DNA techniques soon will allow biologists to pinpoint the region an animal came from and nab hunters who have a tag for one area but kill their bounty in another.
“It’s coming,” he said.
In the Nevada case, game wardens took blood and tissue samples from the scene and the carcass left behind. From witness accounts, investigators were able to identify the five suspects after searching through the state hunting tag database.
“One person saw Marty Hall coming out of the trees, and when he got on a four-wheeler he didn’t have a rifle anymore,” said Fred Esparza, NDOW game warden and lead investigator.
That December, search warrants were issued for five homes, four in Nevada and Larry Hall’s home in Franktown, Colo., south of Denver. Samples were taken from frozen meat in freezers, and Colorado wildlife officers lifted a blood sample from an ATV tire.
It would be another six months before investigators found the missing gun used to shoot the elk that was left to rot. That break came with the help of Pepper, trained to sniff out weapon odors like gun oil and gun powder. The elk caper was one the dog’s first assignments.
Owned and handled by Jim Stirling, with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Pepper found the weapon on June 10, 2011, under sagebrush near Jarbidge.
“This gun was buried under feet of snow for six months before I was even able to get access to this area,” Esparza said.
Forensic tests confirmed bullets fired from the weapon Marty Hall had ditched matched the bullet that killed the elk.
Larry Hall, 65, and Marty Hall, 45, pleaded guilty last week to killing or possessing a bull elk without a tag. Larry Hall was ordered to pay more than $8,000 in fines; his son was assessed more than $3,500 in fines and forfeited a Yamaha Kodiak ATV.
Frank Koski, 86, and John Koski, 50, pleaded no contest in November to gross misdemeanors of possessing an elk without a tag. Each was fined more than $3,000.