Poacher Pleads Guilty

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An Iowa man accused of illegally killing trophy-size elk and mule deer in Colorado’s backcountry and transporting them across state lines for commercial sale pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges in what authorities are calling one of the biggest poaching investigations in Colorado and Iowa history.

George Allen Waters, 53, a farmer from West Branch, Iowa, pleaded guilty to two felony violations of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law, and one felony charge of illegal possession of a machine gun. State and federal wildlife authorities said Waters admitted to poaching 45 trophy-quality animals valued at $270,000 from locations in Colorado and Iowa beginning in 1992. He pleaded guilty to the interstate transportation and sale of 38 illegally killed trophy white-tailed deer, elk and mule deer. Authorities said Waters took 14 animals from western Colorado and 24 from Iowa.

Waters entered a plea in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Rock Island, Ill., before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Shields. No sentencing date has been set.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey B. Lang, who prosecuted the case, said the government’s agreement with Waters requires him to serve five years in federal prison without parole, pay a $10,000 fine and a $300 special assessment, and serve three years of supervised probation upon his release from prison. In addition, Lang said Waters would pay $30,000 in restitution that will be divided equally between Colorado and Iowa, and forfeit numerous animal trophy mounts, skulls, firearms and other hunting items seized by authorities. Agents seized nine firearms, including a 9mm machine gun, state and federal wildlife authorities said.

Because Waters pleaded guilty to two felony violations of the Lacey Act, he faces additional fines of $500,000 for wildlife violations and another $250,000 for illegal possession of a machine gun. The federal judge could sentence Waters to an additional 10 years in prison on the firearm violation. In addition to legal and financial repercussions, Waters faces suspension of hunting privileges in Colorado, Iowa and other member states of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact (IWVC).

Waters’ prosecution is the result of a joint investigation by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. Authorities said an investigator from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also assisted in the probe.

Following an undercover investigation, state and federal wildlife agents served federal search warrants at Waters’ residence on May 21. Wildlife agents gathered several trailer loads of evidence and conducted numerous interviews with witnesses, authorities said.

DOW investigator Glenn Smith said the agency had seen other large poaching cases. However, he noted that this one involved a large number of illegally taken big-game animals, the commercial sale and transportation of the animals, and “brazen disregard for wildlife laws, wildlife officers and the public.”

During the course of their investigation, authorities determined that Waters camouflaged animal heads before stashing them in trees, returning later to claim them as “found heads.” Wildlife authorities said Waters left the carcasses to rot. They said Waters later admitted to poaching eight trophy elk and six mule deer in Colorado, using out-dated licenses and tags to disguise his trophies. In Iowa, he admitted to killing 24 trophy-size white tail deer. The illegal hunting activities occurred between 1992 and 2002, state and federal wildlife officials said.

Authorities said the Montana-based nonprofit The Boone and Crockett Club, which maintains a registry of trophy animals, had scored and registered many of the antlers. Such scores can increase the market value of trophy antlers, wildlife officials said.

In March 2003, Waters sold antlers from three trophy deer to an undercover agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We were all holding our breath,” Smith said of the undercover operation. “But it worked. He took the bait and the rest is history.”

Authorities said Waters traveled to southwest Colorado, near the Uncompahgre National Forest, to hunt for trophy-size elk and deer with a rifle during archery season and without a license. DOW authorities were tipped to the hunting expeditions and subsequently launched an investigation, working with Iowa and federal wildlife law-enforcement agents. Investigators went undercover to gather evidence.

Colorado wildlife investigators said the probe into Waters’ activities accelerated last year when a DOW officer in Montrose County searched a suspicious camp and discovered a freshly killed elk carcass. Authorities said a vehicle with Iowa license plates associated with the camp belonged to one of Waters’ relatives, but the hunters left the camp before DOW officers could question them.

Smith said DOW District Manager Brandon Diamond, who is based in Nucla, Colo., found a camouflaged set of elk antlers not far from the campsite. The antlers had been taken from a large six-point bull and were about 12 feet up in a large tree. Smith said they had been covered with tape and fresh pine boughs. Other pieces of old tape at the base of the tree indicated it had been used before to hide antlers.

“Unless he stood directly under the large tree, there was no way he could have seen the antlers. And, even then, it was very difficult to see,” Smith said. “Without (Diamond’s) desire and tenacity, we would never have found those antlers. And without those antlers, there would not have been any investigation.”

DOW officials said agency law-enforcement officers later photographed and videotaped the scene and meticulously collected and processed antlers, an elk carcass, and other evidence. The evidence was taken to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Forensic Lab in Ashland, Ore., where technicians concluded the antlers were from the carcass found near the camp and that one of two fingerprints found belonged to Waters.

Smith said the Waters case is among the worst he’s seen in 30 years of wildlife management. The DOW first received tips about Waters’ hunting activity via Colorado’s Operation Game Thief phone tip line in 2001 and 2002. Aside from DOW wildlife manager Brandon Diamond, Smith credits several other individuals with bringing the poaching investigation to a successful conclusion, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Lang; federal agents Kevin Ellis and Justin Mays; Iowa’s Chief of Law Enforcement Lowell Johnson; and DOW criminal investigator Eric Schaller.

Smith said the more wildlife officers learned about Waters and his activities, the more they realized they had “a ruthless poacher on their hands.”

“Waters was not into poaching for the meat. He was into it for self-gratification, ego and for money,” Smith said.

You can help stop poaching. If you see a poaching incident, report it. Poaching is a crime against you, your neighbor, and everyone else in the state of Colorado. Call the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-332-4155. Verizon Wireless subscribers can dial #OGT. Or you can e-mail tips to: game.thief@state.co.us.