Hunting guide blasts plea in trophy elk case
A longtime hunting guide is outraged that a Basalt man who faced $11,500 in fines for illegally killing a trophy elk escaped with a $100 fine and a $2,000 donation to an elk conservation group.Dick Piffer, who has been a hunting and fishing guide for 31 years, contends the Colorado Division of Wildlife had more than enough evidence for prosecutors to win a conviction against Raymond Seelbinder under Colorado’s Sampson Law.The Sampson Law created stiffer penalties for poaching trophy-sized game. The law was enacted in 1998 after a large bull elk, named Sampson by people who had become used to his seasonal visits to Estes Park, was poached and turned into a trophy.Had Seelbinder been convicted on all three of the original charges the DOW brought, his hunting license also could have been assessed 35 points. Under the plea agreement, he received 20 points against his license and will find out next month what suspension, if any, he will get.On Sept. 23, 2004, wildlife officer Kelly Wood wrote up Seelbinder, 51, for unlawfully hunting a bull elk that had at least six points on one antler, a violation under the Sampson Law that carries a $10,000 fine. Wood also ticketed him for illegally taking the elk, which carries a $1,000 fine, and unlawfully entering private land to hunt wildlife without permission. With all the charges, he faced fines totaling $11,507. The last charge, essentially trespassing, is what Seelbinder pleaded guilty to in June.Along with the $100 fine, Seelbinder agreed to make a $2,000 donation to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The prosecutor who approved the plea deal, Katherine Steers, is no longer with the 9th Judicial District. She resigned in August and then filed an ethics complaint against the district attorney’s office with the state Supreme Court.Steers declined to comment about why the two more serious charges were dropped, and she referred questions to the district attorney’s office.Seelbinder had been hunting on the Lawrence Ranch property, which Piffer was leasing for guided trips, in the upper Missouri Heights area. Piffer said two hunters who had hired him came upon Seelbinder.The hunters talked with Seelbinder, then took note of their location with a global positioning device, Piffer said. “They knew he was trespassing,” he said.Seelbinder bragged of his hunting prowess to Piffer’s clients, Piffer said, and offered to be their guide in the future. For contact information, he gave them the top half of his hunting license, Piffer said.Seelbinder, who was using a bow, said he didn’t know he was on private land until he saw a fence as he and his daughter packed the animal out of the area.”I had a legal license, [it was] a legal season, I shot the animal on legal property, but it crossed over into private property,” he said.Most ethical hunters strive for the perfect hit and a quick kill, Seelbinder said. In this case, however, he had to track the elk. He said he “knew it was going to take awhile, and it did. He probably went a half-mile.” He admitted that Wood later found bones from the elk inside the ranch’s property line.Piffer and the hunters turned the information over to Wood, who used the GPS coordinates to find the elk’s skull, went to Seelbinder’s home and matched it “perfectly” with a set of horns at the residence, Piffer said. Wood also declined to comment.DNA tests also confirmed that the rack had come from the skull Wood found, Piffer said.”The DA then turns around and plea bargains the thing down to a slap [on the wrist],” he said, clearly frustrated. “Just unbelievable. When you’ve got all the evidence, c’mon, you can make the case.”Seelbinder’s attorney, John Van Ness, said justice was done. The donation to the elk foundation was substantial, he said, and his client did not deserve a draconian punishment.”They pass these killer laws with maximum penalties, [and] people who have a reasonable, common-sense view of the world just say it’s not necessary to get the maximum every time,” he said. “I don’t think this is an unusual deal.”Van Ness said that “sometimes you know where you are and sometimes you don’t. You’re out in the woods, you don’t have signs or fences. [Seelbinder] was like a mile or two on private land.”Piffer said the Lawrence Ranch is well-marked with signs and fences. He added that private lands don’t have to be marked and it is a hunter’s responsibility to know where he or she is.Seelbinder knew he was close to private property. But there was no fence in the vicinity, he said, and he was tracking the animal “in the heat of the moment.”Piffer said it was one of the more blatant violations he has experienced. But Seelbinder said that in his 40 years of hunting, this is the first time he has run afoul of the law. And when he ran into Piffer’s hunters, they may have thought he was trespassing, but they were actually on public land, Seelbinder contended.It isn’t clear whether his hunting license will be suspended at a DOW hearing next month. Seelbinder said it could be suspended for five years.Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said a 20-point penalty doesn’t equal an automatic suspension of a hunting license. And the trespassing charge is a property infraction, not a wildlife crime, he said.In the agency’s administrative hearing process, a hearing officer will weigh all the evidence and other factors related to the case before the decision on the hunting license is made, Hampton said. If Seelbinder’s license is suspended, 20 other states would honor the suspension. He is still able to hunt as he awaits the hearing.Hampton said it is difficult to say if the wildlife agency was upset with the outcome.”It depends on what happens at all levels of [the case] making its way through the court system,” he said. “We write [citations] based on what charges there may be in the field. By the time it goes to a prosecutor, a judge or a jury, there’s a lot of different things that can come out the other end. It’s hard to say categorically whether we’d be disappointed with an outcome [when] there are other people who are able to make decisions.”Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter said he wasn’t familiar with the case and wasn’t sure if Steers had consulted with the DOW’s Wood about the plea agreement. That latter step is particularly important in wildlife cases, which he called a “sub-specialty.””The best thing to do is to talk with the DOW officer,” Felletter said. “They understand all the intricacies of what effect this has on the person’s hunting status, what’s really serious, what isn’t.”Felletter did say he thought the $2,000 donation and 20 points were significant.Along with the donation, Seelbinder checked “yes” on a form asking if he wanted to become a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He will receive six issues of Bugle magazine, a membership card and a window decal.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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