Trophy thief


WEST UNION, Ohio -- "I've only been an Ohio Wildlife Officer for six years," said Chris Gilkey, "but this case has been my most important so far, and may well to turn out to be the biggest of my entire career."

The case Gilkey was referring to is the one that he and State Wildlife Officer Chris Rice recently completed. The investigation resulted in Johnny B. Clay, age 37 of Minford, Ohio, pleading guilty to four charges stemming from the poaching of a trophy white-tailed deer in the early fall of 2009. But this was not just any deer -- it was the largest "typical" whitetail buck killed in North America in 2009.

As a result of the officers' investigation, Clay pleaded guilty to four charges: taking a deer in the closed season, hunting without permission of the landowner, having no hunting license, and having no deer permit.

He was fined $1,500 by the court, plus paid an additional $134 in court costs. But that amount pales in comparison to the bill Clay received recently from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, for restitution of the trophy buck.

In accordance with Ohio's revised restitution law for the illegal taking of white-tailed deer -- which went into effect March 2008 -- the Division of Wildlife is seeking an increased recovery value on all illegally killed wildlife. The bottom line is that the Ohio Division of Wildlife is imposing a restitution fee on Clay for the deer in the amount of $23,572.05.


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The case began last summer when two law-abiding deer hunters came to Officer Gilkey, informing him of a trophy buck in Adams County with a huge rack that they had been watching and videotaping for several months. "The two hunters wanted to let me know about the buck in case anything illegal happened to it," said Gilkey. "And, unfortunately, it did …"

The two hunters continued observing the buck by day and getting trail-camera photos of it by night, but after September 6 the buck disappeared. It was never seen again by the pair of hunters, nor did it show up on anymore of their trail camera photos.

Fast-Forward to March 2010

While working in plain clothes at the Ohio Deer & Turkey Expo outdoor show in Columbus, Ohio in March, Officer Gilkey was approached by one of the two hunters who had photographed the large deer the previous summer.

"He was white as a sheet and shaking with anger," Gilkey said. "What's wrong?" I asked him.

"He's dead!" the hunter said. "That buck I told you about last summer is mounted and on display in one of the show booths. Come take a look …"

Sure enough, the trophy buck's head and antlers were on display, with the description below the mount reading, "New Kentucky State-Record Bow Kill." Being in plain clothes, Gilkey talked to the man displaying the deer, Johnny Clay, and asked him a few questions about it.

Gilkey then left the booth, and immediately phoned his supervisor. The supervisor advised Officer Gilkey to begin an investigation into the taking of the deer. As a result, he and State Wildlife Officer Chris Rice returned to the sport show the next day and interviewed Clay.

"At first, Clay was cooperative and willing to tell us his 'story' about killing the deer," Gilkey said. "But when we showed him the 50 or so trail-camera photos we had of the deer alive and told him that we knew the deer had lived in Ohio and not Kentucky, he dropped his head and we knew we had him."

The two officers then returned to the show booth and seized the trophy deer head as evidence. Needless to say, taking such a trophy head out the door in front of thousands of people made the investigation the talk of the sport show.

Clay later admitted poaching the trophy buck with a bow and arrow, before the Ohio bowhunting season began, then taking it to Kentucky and checking it in as a bow kill. But this was not Clay's first wildlife law violation. He has ten prior wildlife law convictions, spending time in jail for several of those offenses.

In addition to the fine, court costs, and more than $23,000 in restitution payments imposed upon Clay, he also lost his hunting privileges in Ohio for life. His name will also be entered into the Wildlife Violator's Compact, meaning that he will most likely lose his hunting privileges in 33 reciprocating states, as well.

The trophy deer head and antlers were forfeited by the court to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, as was the compound bow Clay used to kill the buck. No jail time was imposed on Clay by the court.

A "typical" whitetail rack, the trophy deer scored an impressive 197 2/8 points, according to Boone & Crockett scoring guidelines. And not only was the deer the largest typical white-tailed buck taken in North America during 2009, it also ranks fourth all time in the Buckeye Big Buck Club record book. For a state such as Ohio that has produced many trophy bucks over many years, this is a tremendously high ranking.

"The unfortunate aspect of this case is that this buck could have been the trophy of a lifetime for a law-abiding hunter," said Gilkey. "But instead, someone got greedy and poached it. I'm just glad we were able to make the case and bring the poacher to justice."

The restitution value for white-tailed deer in Ohio is determined by antler measurement, using a set formula plus the value derived for wildlife.

W. H. "Chip" Gross is a frequent contributor to ESPNOutdoors.com, and maybe reached for comment about this article through his Web site, www.chipgross.com.