College Party Deteriorates into Bear Poaching

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A night of college student frivolity on a Crowheart ranch August 5, 2002 turned into the illegal killing of a black bear, an interstate search for the poachers and evidence, two years of working out a plea agreement and associated court processes and two young adults paying a total of $5,880 in fines and restitution for the crime.

In a plea agreement with the Fremont County Attorney’s Office, Thomas E. "Ned" Purcell, 23, of Orange, Va. and Charles D. "Donald" Robinson, 24, of Columbiana, Ala. pleaded "no contest" to taking a black bear without a license, during a closed season, with the aid of artificial light and after legal hunting hours.

Christian A. Yanicelli, 28, of New Canaan, Conn. and Alison T. Thayer, 22, of Richmond, Va. were each issued four warning tickets for being an accessory to the same charges.

Ninth Circuit Court Judge Robert Denhardt recently fined Purcell and Robinson $1,440 each, assessed each man $1,500 in restitution for the value of the animal and revoked their hunting privileges for three years.

The case began Aug. 15, 2002 with a tip from a concerned citizen that Purcell had recently killed the 2-year-old male bear on a local ranch and was probably driving back to Virginia with it that day.

The Game and Fish Department’s Lander Wildlife Investigator Scott Browning conducted a license check and found that Purcell did not have a bear license. Browning contacted the Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to be on the lookout for Purcell’s pickup truck. Early the following morning, Nebraska conservation officers Scott Brandt and Dan Zuehlke located Purcell’s truck at a Sidney, Neb. motel and recovered the bear skull and eight claws. The officers reported Purcell, accompanied by his father who is an attorney, was cooperative and admitted to killing the bear. The officers took Purcell’s statement, seized the bear and Purcell’s rifle as evidence and transferred both to the G&F.

Also on Aug. 16, Browning, along with Regional Wildlife Supervisor Kent Schmidlin and Bear Management Officer Brian DeBolt, contacted the Wind River Land and Cattle Company where the crime occurred. The ranch management had no knowledge of the event, but another summer worker, Cody White of Princeton, W.Va., had been involved and revealed to the officers a cooler with two bear paws and the remaining carcass hidden in an old root cellar.

Over the next several months, Browning contacted all parties involved in their home states. He learned that Robinson, Thayer, and Yanicelli were visiting Purcell and White at the ranch. The night of the crime, the group ate dinner, drank beer and then loaded up in the back of Purcell’s truck to spotlight coyotes. They spotlighted the black bear, which Purcell and Robinson shot at with 30.06 rifles. The bear climbed up a tree, Purcell and Robinson followed on foot, located it with flashlights, shot again and killed it. They returned to the ranch, gutted the animal cutting off its head and paws and hiding the carcass in the abandoned cellar. Purcell took the skull and eight claws, gave two claws to Yanicelli, and Robinson was to take the other two paws at a later date. All the parties involved in the crime attended small eastern colleges.

Browning said that the group did about every thing possibly wrong regarding the take of wildlife, especially since Purcell and Robinson were hunters and knew better. "Both men told me that they ‘got caught up in the excitement of seeing a bear and soon realized what we did was illegal and was a stupid thing to do," he said.

The men had also agreed not to talk about the incident, but when confronted with the evidence, all suspects were cooperative. "Their cooperation was why more serious charges were not filed, a plea agreement was reached and two suspects only received warnings for their limited involvement," Browning said. Potential charges included the federal Lacey Act for transporting illegally taken wildlife across state lines.

Browning said that the assistance from the Nebraska conservation officers was "top notch" and made the case go much easier. "Even with their own heavy workloads, the Nebraska officers quickly responded to my request, and searched for the suspect vehicle way before sunrise the morning they found Purcell in Sidney," he said. "They really came through for me and for Wyoming sportsmen."

Browning added that Fremont County Attorney Ed Newell was once again very helpful in advising officers and working to get the plea agreement negotiated with nonresidents.

"I believe Judge Denhardt’s sentence sends a clear message outside of Wyoming’s borders: ‘Come to Wyoming, enjoy our wildlife, but value it as we do or pay the consequences,’" Browning said.