Man convicted for poaching
An El Jebel man was convicted Friday of violating the state’s “Samson Law” for illegally killing a trophy elk east of Aspen last year.
A jury of three men and three women found Marc McKinney guilty of two counts of illegally taking elk by use of bait. The Colorado Division of Wildlife cited McKinney after investigating claims that he hunted during bow season last September in an area where salt blocks had been spotted by another hunter. Elk are attracted to salt so it’s considered bait and outlawed by the state wildlife commission.
The verdict stunned about a dozen friends and family members who rallied around McKinney during the one-day trial.
Deputy District Attorney Gail Nichols didn’t try to prove that McKinney planted the salt block at a hunting spot in the White River National Forest. She built her case by establishing that he constructed tree stands in areas where he knew salt had existed at one time – even if the blocks weren’t planted by him.
“That was a big point,” she said after the trial. The state law prohibits hunting elk when it is known that bait was present or when it should have been known, Nichols noted.
She said she was confident about pursuing the charges because two separate witnesses had come forward with complaints against McKinney – “two people coming forward on the same person at the same time.”
Trophy bull elk
One of the few facts that wasn’t disputed by Nichols and McKinney’s attorney, John Case, was that the bull elk that was killed was a rare beast.
It had a six-by-six rack, meaning that both beams of its antlers had six points. Colorado Division of Wildlife officer Kevin Wright, who cited McKinney, estimated the elk weighed at least 700 pounds.
When an animal that size is illegally taken, the state can prosecute under the “Samson Law,” named after a huge elk illegally taken near Estes Park. The special law allows the state to levy higher fines for violations.
The charges against McKinney alleged that he was sitting in a tree stand that he constructed south of the Roaring Fork River and Highway 82 at mile marker 48 when a cow elk wandered into a clearing within his range. McKinney had a valid hunting license and had tags allowing him to kill a cow and a bull.
He successfully killed the cow and was preparing to leave the stand and dress the elk when he heard a bull bugle, according to testimony during the trial. McKinney waited and eventually took a shot with his bow at a trophy elk that wandered by his stand. The hunt occurred on Sept. 11, 2003.
“Did the use of bait have anything to do with your hunt?” asked Case. “Absolutely not,” McKinney replied.
Case called to the stand five men who were hunting buddies and other friends of McKinney who testified that they didn’t see the hunting area baited with a salt lick when they helped build the tree stand or assist him in packing out the elk meat.
Strong circumstantial evidence
The prosecution countered with testimony from Sam Chambers, a self-professed “avid hunter” who said he saw conditions around the Independence Pass hunting area that disgusted him and prompted him to eventually file a complaint against McKinney.
Chambers said on Sept. 10, 2003, he came across a site where two large salt blocks had been cut in two and left among rocks. The bait was sprinkled about 14 yards from a tree stand, he said. Chambers decided to keep an eye out on the site during his own hunting during bow season.
“I had hoped maybe I could catch the guy who was doing it,” he said. When Nichols asked him why, he replied that “cheating” to kill an elk “kind of defeats the purpose” of big game hunting.
Chambers said he next checked and saw salt at the hunting site on Sept. 12. He also ran into associates of McKinney that day and discovered that a cow and bull elk had been killed in the area.
More than a week later, Chambers had an opportunity to show the site to wildlife officer Wright. By then, the salt block that Chambers claimed he saw was gone.
Nichols also built her case around testimony of Brooke Paulides, who described himself as a “casual friend” of McKinney. Paulides claimed that 10 years ago McKinney invited him to hunt off a salt lick but Paulides declined because he didn’t need that kind of “edge.”
Paulides said he ran into McKinney the day he was packing out his trophy bull last September. McKinney claimed he got the elk at a site on Aspen Mountain. Paulides said he felt some facts had been “twisted” a little bit, so he checked the camp McKinney referred to on Aspen Mountain and found it baited with salt blocks. McKinney had also constructed a tree stand at that site.
Paulides filed a complaint with the wildlife division. Wright said Paulides’ observations at the Aspen Mountain site favored by McKinney combined with Chambers’ observations of the Independence Pass site convinced him that charges were justified. He eventually issued tickets with fines and surcharges of $12,808 and enough “points” to revoke McKinney’s hunting license for a period to be determined.
Case attempted to discredit Chambers and Paulides by raising questions about their motives.
“You’ve been out to get Mr. McKinney for quite a few years, haven’t you?” Case asked Paulides. Paulides acknowledged he was bothered by alleged poor sportsmanship on the part of McKinney.
Testimony showed Paulides told investigators, “[McKinney] needs to be stopped for the sake of all hunters in Colorado.”
Case alleged Chambers was disappointed that McKinney nailed a big buck at a place where Chambers liked to hunt. His motive, Case suggested, was “simple jealousy.”
The testimony of Chambers and Paulides “smears” McKinney but doesn’t prove he did anything wrong, said Case.
Nichols countered in her closing statements to the jury that Chambers didn’t have any reason to lie. He didn’t know McKinney before the incident. Chambers’ motives were pure, she claimed.
“As he explained to you, he doesn’t like people who cheat and hunt over bait,” said Nichols.
The most damning testimony for McKinney was apparently his own admission that he was aware that both the Independence Pass and Aspen Mountain sites where he built tree stands last year had been sites where salt blocks had been used by unknown parties years ago.
At the site where he killed the cow and bull, McKinney said he was aware that salt had been used there two different hunting seasons between 1994 and 1998. He said he saw no signs of recent use of salt.
McKinney repeatedly said under questioning from Case that he didn’t place salt at the site.
But his admission about knowledge of the presence of salt blocks from years ago was the opening Nichols sought. “So Mr. McKinney builds tree stands in areas he knows have been salted,” she said.
She attempted to discredit the testimony of McKinney’s friends. “Maybe they don’t care about a violation here and there – we don’t know,” she said.
The jury deliberated for roughly 90 minutes before returning the verdict. After they were dismissed, a juror who didn’t want to be named told The Aspen Times that the jury weighed all the evidence to reach its conclusion. It didn’t dwell on whether McKinney brought salt to the site or used a site where he knew there had been salt.
McKinney will be sentenced next month.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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