Many popular police dramas begin with a uniformed officer arriving at the scene of a crime. The officer calls in a detective who surveys the scene and calls in a crime scene investigation (CSI) unit. When a crime occurs in nature, no one expects a CSI team to converge on the scene.
These scenes usually begin when a landowner reports hearing a gunshot in the night and finding a wounded deer in the morning. Landowners and poachers are often surprised to learn that local conservation agents are fully equipped to process a crime scene, much like an urban homicide team.
Comparable to a homicide detective, the agent will look for footprints, tire tracks, or perhaps a bullet in the carcass. The crime scene is photographed and documented, and the agent interviews neighbors in the hopes of finding a witness. In many wildlife cases, there are no witnesses, and it’s up to the conservation agent to get as much information from the main source of evidence — the animal remains.
Science Can Make the Case
Missouri conservation agents are thankful for advances in DNA technology to help solve wildlife crimes.
“Although the Conservation Department’s primary use of DNA technology is for research and management purposes, it can also be used to aid in wildlife law enforcement,” said Conservation Agent Paul Veatch of Oregon County.
MDC’s Resource Science and Protection divisions entered into an agreement in 2009 with the Center for the Conservation of Biological Resources/WestCore at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, to develop a DNA library for Missouri’s elk herd, black bears, furbearer species, and whitetailed deer. The deer library enables researchers to determine what level of variation exists among Missouri white-tailed deer
DNA profiles. WestCore used DNA samples from 767 deer across
Missouri and sequenced DNA unique to the state’s deer at seven specific sites along the DNA molecule. Their findings indicated that, given a population of about 1.3 million deer, the chance of finding two deer with the same DNA “fingerprint” is about 1 in 3 trillion.
This means if a poacher leaves a portion of the carcass of a deer behind — even drops of blood — and puts the venison in the freezer, that meat can be matched to the crime scene using DNA evidence.
Veatch put that technology to work for the first time on a late December night in 2010 on a deer poaching case in Oregon County. A landowner reported hearing a rifle shot near his home and observing the headlights of a pickup truck driving from the direction of the shot. A short time later, he saw what he believed was the same truck returning where the shot had occurred. The vehicle stopped in the roadway, and the headlights were turned off. This prompted the landowner to drive out to where the truck stopped and get the truck’s license plate number before it drove off. He then called to report what he had witnessed.
“After making an initial survey of the scene, I interviewed the landowner and laid in wait for over an hour before a car approached the residence,” Veatch said. “The car passed the residence, and the driver turned off the headlights, and then stopped at the same location where the landowner had observed the pickup truck.”
When Veatch approached the driver, he learned the person was also the listed owner of the truck reported earlier. The driver denied shooting a deer, there were no firearms in the car, no sign of a deer having been in it, and Veatch saw nothing to indicate there was anyone with the man. However, based on years of law enforcement experience, Veatch suspected the driver knew more than he’d shared.
“I suspected the driver may have let someone out of the vehicle, so I requested backup from the sheriff’s office to help secure the area and further investigate,” Veatch said. MDC Regional Supervisor Gerald Smith and Howell County Conservation Agent Matt Franks responded. While Veatch and the driver waited for agents Smith and Franks, another person approached Veatch, emerging from a wooded area. He echoed the driver’s denial of any poaching activity.
“The arrival of backup officers can suddenly change a situation,” Veatch said.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived, Veatch, Smith, and Franks searched the area and found a blood trail near the location of the rifle shot. This led directly to a small button buck, buried in leaves. The agents confronted the men with the new evidence, but they still denied any involvement. In court, these facts are considered circumstantial evidence. The agents can improve their case with physical evidence that ties the suspect to the crime. So when Veatch noticed small spots of blood on one of the men’s boots, he seized them for analysis. The men continued to argue that the blood was from a deer legally taken and checked.
Veatch issued both men court citations for “… illegally possessing or transporting deer or parts thereof” before releasing them from custody. The agents secured samples from the illegally taken button buck and followed strict guidelines for evidence collection to keep from cross-contaminating the samples from the deer and the boots.
They submitted the samples to WestCore for DNA analysis, which could provide support for the men’s story, or prove that they were responsible for killing the button buck illegally. Fifty-three days later, WestCore reported that the DNA samples from the boots and the button buck originated from the same animal. They also determined the likelihood of another animal having the same DNA was less than 1 in 3.6 quintillion.
Thanks to these CSI techniques, the case never went to trial.
The defendants changed their plea to guilty and the judge fined them $439.50 each, and $650 in restitution. In Missouri, money collected from wildlife violation fines issued by conservation agents is donated to schools located in the county.
For Veatch, this is a victory that may never have been won without the use of DNA technology.
Science Can Prove Innocence
Sometimes, though, the victory comes when the same technology proves innocence, such as with a case at the end of the 2016 firearms deer season.
On the last Monday of the year, a Texas County landowner was working on his property just a short distance from a county road when he heard a gunshot. He then saw a pickup truck stopped across from his neighbor’s property and a couple of men standing near the tailgate.
“He decided to see what was going on, and as he walked up to the driver’s side of the pickup, he saw what he thought was two deer in the back,” said Brad Hadley, a Shannon County conservation agent who responded to the call. “He confronted the driver about shooting from a county road, and the driver promptly denied having done so and quickly left the area.”
The landowner got the license number of the vehicle as it was leaving and turned to go back to his property when he noticed his neighbor standing in the county road. He asked his neighbor if he’d heard the shot, and if he knew the driver of vehicle or if anyone had permission to hunt there. The neighbor said he’d heard the shot, but he didn’t know the driver or vehicle, and hadn’t given anyone permission to hunt. That’s when Agent Hadley was called.
“I quickly noted blood-spattered rocks on the county road and bloody drag marks coming off the neighbor’s property,” Hadley said of his initial investigation.
Hadley collected samples from both locations of blood, retrieved written statements from both the man who made the report and his neighbor, and checked the license plate on the reported pickup truck. The license number gave him a person of interest, so he set out to locate and interview that person.
“He immediately admitted to having been in the area and having a confrontation with the man who called in the incident,” Hadley said. “He also denied having killed a deer at the scene, instead saying the deer in the back of his pickup was one he killed that morning, but on his own property a couple of miles away.”
Hadley took samples from the deer and the blood in the back of the man’s pickup, but the witness reports and the man’s own account weren’t matching up. The man insisted on his innocence and gave the conservation agent specific directions to the location where he said he’d killed the deer.
Hadley visited the site where the hunter said he’d taken the deer, but he found no evidence to support the story. At this point, Hadley had written statements from two witnesses who both heard a gunshot they determined came from the county road. One of those witnesses saw people outside a truck at a location with blood-spattered rocks in the road and bloody drag marks leading to the truck’s location. That witness thought he saw two deer in the back of the pickup, but the second witness statement did not verify the number of deer.
The driver of the pickup admitted to having killed a deer that morning and having been at the incident scene with that deer in the back of his pickup, but claimed the deer came from his own property. No physical evidence could be found to support that claim.
Hadley said this is what is commonly referred to as a circumstantial case. All the circumstances of the incident would support allegations of taking a deer from a motor vehicle and roadway and trespassing to retrieve the illegally taken deer. In any circumstantial case, the officer may use discretion at the time of the incident and not issue citations pending further investigation. This is what Hadley did, choosing to rely on DNA analysis as a forensic tool to help solve the case. In this case, the physical evidence and the DNA in the blood samples collected did not support the circumstantial evidence and the person of interest was cleared.
Science Helps Agents Enforce the Code
These are just two examples of the many routine Wildlife Code of Missouri violations conservation agents work to solve daily. Many of these incidents are profoundly similar, yet each has its own, unique circumstances that guide the agent’s decision-making process.
“Not every Wildlife Code violation situation warrants sending DNA to a lab, because this type of forensic analysis is relatively expensive,” Hadley said. “But in contested cases or when conservation agents only have circumstantial evidence, DNA analysis may be used to either aid in prosecution or establish innocence.”
Veatch, Hadley, and other Missouri conservation agents continue to use DNA analysis techniques when investigating wildlife violations. CSI Conservation may not be the focus of a high-rated television show anytime soon, but it’s likely currently playing out in real life at a poaching scene in any number of Missouri counties.