Poaching charges filed
Jeff Darrah, warden captain in Missoula for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, poses recently with an assortment of "trophy-class" game animals and paraphernalia confiscated from a Seeley Lake couple in November. "This is the biggest poaching case I've worked on in my 17 years as a game warden, in terms of volume of violations and animals poached," Darrah said. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian
By DARYL GADBOW of the Missoulian
Seeley Lake couple accused of more than 100 illegal kills
A married couple from the Seeley Lake area, described by state wildlife officials as "serial poachers," was charged Monday in Missoula Justice Court with a total of 12 felony wildlife violations.
Dean and Renita Ruth, who live on Woodworth Road in a remote area of the Blackfoot Valley east of Seeley Lake, also face numerous misdemeanor charges in a case that could expand to involve additional charges against other people in Montana and elsewhere.
The charges against the Ruths involve more than 100 illegally killed "trophy-class" game animals - including moose, bear, mountain lions, elk, white-tailed and mule deer - over an eight- or nine-year period.
Missoula Justice John Odlin set bail at $125,000 for Dean Ruth and $50,000 for Renita Ruth.
State game wardens went to the Ruths' residence Tuesday to arrest them, but the couple and their children were gone when the officers arrived, according to a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official.
Odlin said he imposed the large bail amount because he believed that the chances were great that the Ruths would flee prosecution.
"This is the biggest poaching case I've worked on in my 17 years as a game warden, in terms of volume of violations and animals poached," said Jeff Darrah, FWP warden captain in Missoula. "It's unbelievable as far as how big it is."
"We'll arrest them sooner or later," he said.
Felony charges in poaching cases are unusual, according to Darrah.
"Generally, everything we do is misdemeanors," he added. "But we do have a felony statute. I've only used it a few times in my career. But generally, it means poaching and selling an animal, or possessing animals worth more than $1,000 in restitution value. For example, one elk has a state restitution value of $1,000.
"We've looked at this with a lot of years of experience. This is more than the normal individual taking one or two animals and taking advantage of an opportunity. These individuals would be put in the category of serial poachers. This is two or three notches above the average poaching case."
Dean and Renita Ruth each face five felony counts of possession of unlawfully taken wildlife. Each charge carries maximum penalties of fines up to $50,000, prison sentences of up to five years, loss of hunting privileges for three years to life, and thousands of dollars in restitution for the game animals.
They also each face a felony charge of unlawful possession of a firearms silencer, which carries penalties under Montana law of not less than five years, and up to 20 years in prison; and a fine of not less than $1,000, and up to $20,000. Possession of a silencer is also a felony violation of federal law.
Dean Ruth also is charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of possession of unlawfully taken wildlife and nine misdemeanor counts of killing over the limit of deer and elk.
Renita Ruth also faces 10 misdemeanor counts of possession of unlawfully taken wildlife, one misdemeanor count of assisting out-of-state residents to illegally obtain state of Montana resident licenses and one misdemeanor count of killing over the limit of game.
All the misdemeanor charges carry penalties that include jail time, fines and loss of hunting privileges.
"Crimes of this magnitude affect so many systems," said Deputy Missoula County Attorney Kirsten LaCroix, who filed the charges against the Ruths. "They certainly affect the ecosystem. And they also affect the judicial system. This affects every hunter and every law-abiding citizen because of the magnitude of the crime.
"These people," she added, "are not trophy hunters. They're not sportsmen. They're just killers. True sportsmen and hunters would look on their behavior with contempt. Killing seems to be culturally ingrained in them."
The Ruths, who moved to the Seeley Lake area with their three children about 10 years ago from Pennsylvania, initially came under investigation by FWP over a year ago on suspicion of helping out-of-state residents illegally obtain Montana resident hunting licenses.
An eastern Montana game warden noticed in FWP's license records that five people with a Seeley Lake address bought all of their hunting licenses in Jordan, hundreds of miles away, according to Darrah. It turned out that all five were residents of Pennsylvania. They listed the Ruths' address as their own.
"Essentially, this case started with a curious warden saying 'That doesn't look right,' " Darrah said.
On Nov. 15, a 10-person team consisting of state game wardens, a Missoula County sheriff's deputy, and a Forest Service law enforcement officer served a search warrant at the Ruths' home and associated outbuildings on their timbered 20-acre property.
"On the search," said Darrah, "we found two untagged deer and one untagged bear on the premises. And we seized numerous other articles, including 108 deer and elk (antler) racks from inside the residence. We seized probably thousands, at least hundreds, of photographs - kill pictures, we'd call them - of numerous individuals posing with dead wildlife. We also seized numerous hand-held spotlights, and two rifles fitted with silencers, which are illegal just to possess. With the lights and silencers, it leads one to believe there was a lot of shooting being done at illegal hours."
There is no evidence that the Ruths' alleged poaching activities were part of any commercial enterprise, Darrah said, but appeared to be "the lifestyle that they lead."
The Ruths have a long family history of criminal activity involving wildlife violations in Pennsylvania, he said.
FWP wardens have painstakingly cataloged evidence gathered at the Ruths' residence since Nov. 15. Much of that evidence is highly incriminating, according to Darrah.
Many of the seized antlers have markings on the skulls listing names, or initials, and dates.
"In a lot of cases, it says 'Dean' or 'Mom' " Darrah said. "So it kind of individualizes who shot each animal, and even the year. So you could tell how many were taken each year. In several cases, numerous animals were taken by one person in a year, far more than could possibly be legal. The time frame goes back eight or nine years for the family."
If that weren't damning enough, the FWP wardens also were able to match many of the distinctive antlers they seized to photos of family members posing with dead animals with the same distinctive antlers. The dates on the photo packages also coincide the dates on the antler skulls.
One of the photos seized from the Ruths shows three young children posing with 15 deer racks lined up in the snow. A note on the back claims the deer were killed in one year by Dean Ruth and another unnamed family member. It reads, "I got 5. Deano got the rest. They were got this year of hunting. All 2 miles of Deano and me from were (sic) we live. I got one MD. Deano got 2."
The photo shows three mule deer antler racks and 12 whitetail racks.
The other family member has not yet been charged, but is under investigation, according to Darrah, and other members of the family also may face charges.
Wardens spent several weeks painstakingly cataloging all the evidence to prepare charges against the Ruths. The charges filed are broken down by year.
The statute of limitations restricts the state from filing charges against the Ruths for illegally taking game animals more than three years ago.
However, Darrah said, "possession of illegal animals is always illegal."
"The sad thing," he said, "is that so many are trophy-class animals. Lots of us would call them once-in-a-lifetime animals. And they don't have just two or three. They have many.
"The disturbing fact is where they live - on the border of the Blackfoot-Clearwater game range, which is a wintering area for elk and deer. These people live in a migration route of elk and deer coming out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and going into the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. They live right at the doorway. The animals think they're moving to safety. Essentially, they're robbing the state of trophy-class animals."
Besides the eastern Montana warden's tip-off that the Ruths might be connected to an illegal resident hunting-license scheme, FWP had received information from the Ruths' neighbors about suspicious activity around their property, Darrah said.
The family also was under scrutiny by wildlife officials after, a couple of years ago, a Lincoln game warden apprehended two people who lived on the Ruths' property for poaching a moose.
On the day wardens served the search warrant, they arrested Mike Lowery, a man who lived at the residence, for hunting while his hunting privileges were revoked. Three misdemeanor charges against Lowery for killing a deer without a license were filed by LaCroix in Missoula Justice Court on Monday.
"It's almost a compound situation," Darrah said of the Ruths' 20-acre home site. "There are trailer houses and other buildings scattered around out in the timber. That's why we took 10 officers to serve the search warrant, so we could spread out, and for security. It took eight hours to do the initial search."
Among other items found during the search, Darrah said, the Ruths had a shooting bench set up in their living room that looked out on an opening in the timber where hay had been placed, allegedly to lure deer. Baiting deer for hunting is illegal in Montana.
Despite the numerous allegedly illegally killed animals at the Ruth residence, wardens found "a bunch" of deer and elk tags from previous years that were unused, Darrah said.
FWP had to set aside an entire large garage bay at its headquarters in Missoula to store and catalog all the antlers and other evidenced gathered in the case.
"It's been a time-consuming investigation," said Darrah. "But it's long from over. I can truthfully say we're not halfway through it yet. Other aspects of this case will probably go on for another year. This investigation could include cases in other states. You could write a book about this. It's unbelievable."
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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