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Hunting Accident File > VIOLATIONS: > 2004

UNCOMPAHGRE PLATEAU POACHER HEADING TO PRISON

Russell Smyth

MONTROSE - An Uncompahgre Plateau hunter who admitted poaching at least $200,000 worth of trophy wildlife in Colorado and Iowa is slated to go to prison this week.

George Allen Waters, 53, of West Branch, Iowa, pleaded guilty in September to two felony violations of the Lacey Act - a federal wildlife protection law - and one felony charge of illegal possession of a machine gun, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He was sentenced Jan. 6.

The case marks one of the largest poaching investigations in history for Colorado and Iowa, according to the DOW. Waters' sentencing follows a joint investigation by the DOW, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Attorney's offices in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa.

Cooperation between state and federal officials in Colorado and Iowa helped secure the case, said Glenn Smith, a DOW criminal investigator based in Montrose.

"We had 60 to 70 people working on this case, and oftentimes without a lot of cooperation you have a hard time working on a case like this," Smith said.

Waters was sentenced to 57 months in a federal penitentiary, Smith said. He is scheduled to begin his term today.

"It could be shortened if he wanted to cooperate with us, but there's no indication he wants to do that with us at this time," Smith said about Waters' prison term.

Waters could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A family member who answered the telephone at his home Wednesday afternoon said he has not started his term yet.

The federal penitentiary system does not give inmates an opportunity for parole; however, the system can reduce sentences up to 15 percent for good behavior. In the plea agreement, Waters waives his right to appeal.

Waters hunted on the Uncompahgre Plateau west of Montrose for 26 years, according to Smith. Part of Waters' guilty plea was for illegally transporting antlers from eight elk and six mule deer killed on the Uncompahgre Plateau across state lines.

The Iowa farmer entered his plea in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Rock Island, Ill., according to the DOW. He pleaded guilty to the interstate transportation and sale of 38 illegally killed trophy white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk between 1992 and 2002.

In addition to the 14 mule deer and elk taken from the Uncompahgre Plateau, the 38 animals include 24 white-tailed deer killed on a federal ammunition plant in Iowa, according to the DOW.

In the plea agreement, Waters admits the commercial value of white-tailed deer, elk and mule deer was at least $200,000 but less than $400,000.

"The defendant hereby acknowledges and admits that the offenses were committed for pecuniary gain, involved a commercial purpose, and involved a pattern of similar violations," the plea agreement states.

Waters sold and traded antlers, according to the DOW. The Iowa man stepped into a law-enforcement net in March when he sold antlers from three trophy deer to an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent.

The poacher hunted in an area near Divide Road on the Uncompahgre Plateau, according to Bill de Vergie, the DOW's area wildlife manager for the

Montrose Area. Waters would remove the skull plate and antlers from animals he killed then hide the antlers as high as 15 to 20 feet up in trees. He

returned to Colorado and collected antlers in the spring, when he could say he found them if a wildlife official stopped and questioned him.

In addition to his prison term, Waters paid $30,000 in restitution, Smith said. Half of the restitution will go to Operation Game Thief, a program that is similar to Crime Stoppers and helps people report wildlife violations in Colorado.

The poacher also forfeited almost 150 items, including elk antlers on skull plates, a photo album with pictures of deer and elk, a 9 mm Sten fully automatic machine gun, bear claws, a record book, a .270 caliber Ruger, a mule deer shoulder mount and numerous white-tailed deer antlers.

Waters' sentencing came about a week after Kevin Lee Chelf, 44, of Iowa City, Iowa, pleaded guilty in the same case, according to the DOW. Under a plea agreement, Chelf will serve eight months in federal prison without parole, pay a fine, and serve one year of supervised probation.

"He's one of George's hunting buddies who was involved with the whole investigation," Smith said about Chelf. "He went ahead and took a plea right off the bat. He didn't fight anything on the charges we had on him."

Chelf must pay $22,500 in restitution, and $7,500 of those funds will go to Operation Game Thief, Smith said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Davenport, Iowa, is pursuing charges against other defendants suspected of poaching on the Uncompahgre Plateau in the Waters case, Smith said.

"There were a number of people involved, and I don't know who all they are going to file charges against," Smith said. "It's probably going to be about five or six people."

Contact Russell Smyth via e-mail at russells@montrosepress.com  


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