Most Wanted Poacher Nabbed

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After nearly a year on the run, Colorado’s most-wanted poacher was arrested April 14 in Berrien County, Michigan, after a tip on his location was called into Michigan’s Report All Poaching Hotline. Wendell J. Cook, 41, had fled Colorado May 23, 2001, the day he was to be sentenced in Montrose County for wildlife poaching and being a felon in possession of firearms. He will be extradited to Colorado this week and lodged in the Montrose County jail.

“This guy just took off and left and thumbed his nose at everyone,” said Glenn Smith, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief coordinator. “But just because you go a couple of thousand miles away doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking for you.”

Law enforcement officers in Colorado, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana and other states had been searching for Cook, and had received several Operation Game Thief tips before the one received in Michigan. Michigan wildlife officers were told they would find Cook teeing off on a southern Michigan golf course the next morning at 8 a.m. Cook was taken into custody without incident and waived extradition.

Cook, who was living in Montrose at the time of his sentencing, and three partners killed five deer, one of which was a trophy animal under the state’s Sampson Law, two elk, two antelope and a black bear.

Most of the killings were in the area between Telluride and Ridgeway. In addition to San Miguel, the poaching spree also extended into Saguache, Montrose, Gunnison and San Juan counties.

Cook had pleaded guilty to one felony and three misdemeanor wildlife counts. Cook’s partners confessed when confronted by wildlife officers and all paid fines, with one of them, Jon Clark, also spending 90 days in jail. The Division also has recommended Clark’s hunting privileges be suspended for life. All, including Cook, were charged in November 2000.

The Division discovered Cook and his partners’ poaching activities in September 2000 after several Operation Game Thief tips.

Cook’s original proposed sentence was fines of over $5,000 and up to five years in state prison. At the time of the poaching, Cook was on probation for a felony drug charge and could not be in possession of a firearm. When wildlife officers originally arrested him in October 2000, wildlife officers found nine guns in Cook’s house, at least two of which he had used for poaching.

Poaching is a serious and costly crime, and while no one knows exact figures, poachers could be killing almost as many animals and fish in Colorado as legitimate hunters do during legal seasons, Smith said. “If poachers kill even half that number each year, the problem is serious,” he said. Poachers don’t just take game animals, either. They also kill endangered, threatened and nongame wildlife, Smith said.

The Division of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief program has a hot line citizens can call if they suspect poaching activity. Those whose tips lead to an arrest can get a reward. The call is toll-free at (800) 332-4155 (Verizon cell phone users can call #OGT), or tips can be e-mailed to game.thief@state.co.us. Callers do not have to give their names or testify in court.

Since 1981, over 700 convictions have resulted from Operation Game Thief tips. Those convictions have meant more than $600,000 in fines and the seizure of 1,300 illegally taken animals. Almost $130,000 in rewards have been paid to citizens who reported illegal wildlife activity.

The public also can help by making a tax-deductible donation to the reward fund, which makes the program possible. Makes checks out to Operation Game Thief, c/o Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216.

For more information, go to www.wildlife.state.co.us/OGT/index.asp.