CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
By ERIC FREEDMAN
LANSING — Is a 21-point trophy buck worth 25,000 bucks?
Not according to poacher John Baker Jr. who was convicted of illegally shooting one on property belonging to Valhalla Ranch, a private hunting resort in Grayling.
Maybe — or maybe not — according to the Court of Appeals, which upheld Baker’s criminal conviction and prison sentence but ordered a Crawford County Circuit Court judge to reconsider the amount of restitution he owes the ranch.
Valhalla promotes itself as “a premier hunting destination, nestled in one of the most picturesque locations in Northern Michigan” and as “a place of incredible whitetails with massive antlers and body size.”
The tangled tale of the poached buck’s price tag — and Baker’s legal woes — began in October 2012 when he and another man were hunting on a friend’s land adjacent to the ranch. A 10-foot fence surrounds the ranch.
“They saw a 21-point buck on the lodge’s property and shot it. They then went through the fence and field dressed the deer,” the appeals court said of Baker and his co-defendants. “They took the deer’s antlers and 150 pounds of meat.”
Two days after the incident, a Valhalla employee spotted a hole in the fence with deer hair and blood, checked the fence line and saw Baker and two other men who claimed to be searching for a lost dog. They fled when the employee said he’d called the police.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department recovered the weapons the men had been carrying. Three bullets from the buck’s carcass matched one of the firearms, the court said.
A Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer and a sheriff’s sergeant found the antlers under the trailer where Baker was staying in Lovells Township. Under questioning, he first denied and then confessed to shooting the buck.
A jury convicted him of larceny — theft — of property worth more than $20,000, possession of a firearm while committing a felony and trespassing.
As a repeat offender, Baker was sentenced to 13 months to 15 years in prison for larceny, plus two years on the firearms charge. The judge also ordered him to pay $25,000 restitution, the amount that Valhalla’s owner testified that the ranch charged for a 21-point buck hunting package that includes meals, lodging, airport pick-up and guide services.
On appeal, Baker contended that there wasn’t enough evidence that the buck was worth more than $20,000.
The unanimous three-judge appeals panel disagreed, saying, “Contrary to Baker’s assertion, it is not the value of the meat or the value of the antlers alone that establishes the value of the deer. Baker did not steal a deer carcass.
“He killed a live deer, destroying that deer’s value as the subject of a hunt,” the court said.
However, the appeals court said the amount of restitution must be reconsidered.
“While there was evidence that the deer was worth $25,000, it is not clear that the lodge’s profits after all expenses would amount to $25,000 — that is, it is not clear that the lodge actually suffered a loss of $25,000.”
If Baker had illegally shot a 21-point buck that wasn’t privately owned, he would have owed the state $12,500 in restitution under a 2013 law that punishes the illegal taking of trophy deer, according to DNR public information officer Ed Golder.
Defense lawyer John Ujlaky of Lansing said he did not know whether Baker intends to appeal further on the issues of his conviction and sentence.
“We’re continuing on with the restitution hearing,” Ujlaky said.
Baker, now 29, is serving his sentence at Pugsley Correctional Facility in Grand Traverse County, according to the Department of Corrections.
The Crawford County prosecutor’s office said co-defendants William Fessenden, 34, of Grayling and Terry Nephew, 46, of Grayling pled guilty in the case. They were not involved in Baker’s appeal.
Charges against a fourth man, Keith Stuart, 30, of Frederic were dismissed because he received immunity for cooperating with authorities, the prosecutor’s office said.
Resources for CNS editors:
Court of Appeals decision: