SALT LAKE CITY — Five people have been ordered to pay a combined $90,000 in restitution to the Division of Wildlife Resources in two statewide poaching cases that began with citizen tips.
"These are two of the most substantial wildlife cases that I've seen in my entire career," said Tony Wood, chief of law enforcement for the state Division of Wildlife Resources.
The case against Salt Lake County residents Jarod William Birrell, Zachary Kane Swank and Balenda Margaret Gutierrez began in 2010 when someone called the DWR's Help Stop Poaching Hotline. That tip led conservation officers to make a stunning discovery.
"This group of individuals poached dozens, several dozens of deer," conservation officer Chris Schulze said Thursday.
"These are two of the most substantial wildlife cases that I've seen in my entire career."
"We believe that they were traveling, really around the state, for the purposes of poaching," Schulze said. "Traveling as far as the St. George area specifically for this purpose."
In total, the trio poached at least eight bucks and 15 to 20 does throughout the state, according to charging documents.
Gutierrez, 41, was the first to plead guilty, entering her plea in August to one count of wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a third-degree felony. One other count was dismissed. She was sentenced to pay $8,000 in restitution to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline. She is on probation for three years, must complete 100 hours of community service and has lost her hunting privileges.
Birrell, 36, was identified by investigators as the ringleader. He pleaded guilty in December to three counts of wanton destruction of protected wildlife, all third-degree felonies. Four additional counts were dismissed as a condition of his plea. He was sentenced to five years probation, ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline, banned from hunting for 45 years and required to complete 150 hours of community service.
Help Stop Poaching Hotline: 800-662-3337
Swank, 21, also pleaded guilty in December to one count of wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a third-degree felony. Two other counts were dismissed. He was sentenced in March to five years probation, ordered to pay a $3,833 fine and $16,000 in restitution to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline.
The trio wasn't the only poaching ring that DWR had under investigation though. Conservation officer Hollie Riddle was also working a case against Bryce Lawrence Sheldon and Casey Merrill Jensen based on a citizen's tip.
Sheldon and Jensen, both 26, started a company called Killshot Productions, which they advertised as a guide and hunting video business. The men filmed themselves illegally killing or shooting at sage grouse, turkey, bear, deer and elk.
"One of these individuals did take some shots, that we had on video, at some turkey vultures," Riddle said, noting that the birds are a protected species under the federal Migratory Bird Act.
"We believe that they were traveling, really around the state, for the purposes of poaching."
In October, Sheldon pleaded guilty to four counts of wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a third-degree felony. A judge dismissed one count of engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity and six counts of wanton destruction of protected wildlife in exchange for the plea.
Sheldon was sentenced to pay $25,960 in restitution to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline, banned from hunting in Utah or any other compact state for 50 years, ordered to forfeit all seized property, placed on probation for five years and required to perform 120 hours of community service.
Jensen entered a no-contest plea in October to a charge of engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity, a second-degree felony, and pleaded guilty to two counts of wanton destruction of protected wildlife. Other charges were dropped in exchange for his plea, which was held in abeyance for three years. He was, however, ordered to pay $3,500 in restitution to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline, and can have no access to firearms.
The money paid to the Help Stop Poaching Hotline is used to pay cash rewards to individuals who provide information that leads to an arrest and conviction, Wood said. Callers are also eligible to receive hunting tags for limited-entry areas in some instances, the chief said.
Wood was quick to acknowledge the hours of work done by Schulze, Riddle and other conservation officers, but said many of the cases they make would have never gotten off the ground without the initial information provided by someone who saw something that didn't seem right.
"With 50 sworn conservation officers around the state, there's no way they can cover the entire state by themselves," Wood said. "We rely heavily on a cooperative approach here and receiving tips from the public is absolutely imperative to get the job done."
The number for the Help Stop Poaching Hotline is 800-662-3337. Callers can request that their identity remain confidential.