OKANOGAN — State Department of Fish and Wildlife officers on Friday seized 9 trophy deer heads after searching four homes in Okanogan County. A 10th head was recovered last month, authorities said.
The evidence will be key to solving the case of the headless bucks, reported by residents from Malott to Okanogan who've been finding carcasses of whitetail and mule deer with the heads cut off and the bodies left to rot, said Wildlife Sgt. Jim Brown.
"This was a poaching ring, and spree killing," said Brown, Wildlife's supervisor in Okanogan County. "All of the suspects in this case know each other. They're interrelated, and doing this together, or as part of a common scheme." The hunters were using spotlights at night to hunt and kill them, he said.
No arrests for illegal hunting were made Friday, but officers have several suspects, he said. One of them - a 24-year-old Omak man - was arrested on suspicion of driving with a suspended license, he said. Evidence is still being processed before he can be arrested for poaching, Brown added.
He said officers expect to arrest more people in the next few weeks, after reviewing all the evidence and conducting more interviews.
"They just killed them to kill them," he said. "Their heads were stacked like cordwood."
Wildlife officers have been investigating the case since November, and in January, went to the public to ask for help. A reward offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect increased to $2,500 in early February.
Brown said officers used information from several tips to piece together their case. They had enough evidence to seek search warrants for four properties on Friday, he said. Six Wildlife officers in Okanogan County received help from Okanogan County Sheriff's deputies, Colville Tribal Police officers, and Wildlife officers from Chelan and Grant counties.
Brown said all of the bucks are considered trophies - the smallest had four points on each side and the largest had five on one side and six on the other, with a 29-inch spread.
"That's a lot of big bucks," he said. If convicted, the poachers will be required to pay a $6,000 fine per buck - because they were trophies - in addition to other court fees and fine.
Brown said local sportsmen who saw officers processing the evidence in a parking lot on Friday stopped to see what was happening. "They were sick to their stomachs," he said, adding, "It's the theft of an opportunity from a legitimate hunter. These deer were going to be that big or bigger in a year. And now, they're not in the gene pool. They're never going to be involved in breeding again."
Officers also seized a 2004 Dodge pickup truck believed to be used to poach some of the deer.