McNesby, Whitehead shocked by charges from February trip
Kris Thoma and Brett Norman
Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby and County Commissioner Mike
Whitehead, charged with violating Wisconsin hunting laws, are pleading
ignorance of that state's regulations and accusing their hunting guide
of deceiving them.
Adam Lee Lawinger, 27, proprietor of Blue River Outfitters, allowed
them and others to violate complicated state and county hunting
regulations after they hired him last February to help them avoid legal
entanglements, both said Tuesday.
McNesby and Whitehead are among 46 people -- 18 of them from the
Pensacola Bay Area -- from 11 states who were charged last Wednesday in
what Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials are calling the
largest case in the state's history involving illegal hunts.
"My explanation overall is that when you go somewhere and hire a
licensed person to take you on a hunt, you assume that they know the
laws and that the State of Wisconsin is regulating them," McNesby said
at a hastily called news conference Tuesday. "... I had no intent to
violate the rules of Wisconsin. I will challenge the fact that I
intentionally did something wrong."
McNesby said Wisconsin authorities interviewed him in Pensacola last
May about his trip.
Describing the conversations as "cordial," he said he assumed
Lawinger was the sole focus of the investigation.
McNesby said he has yet to be officially notified of charges.
"I'm as surprised as anyone," he said.
Meanwhile, questions swirled Tuesday around Escambia County
Administrator George Touart, who has not been charged. Touart went on
the February hunting trip with McNesby, Whitehead and one other man and
was the only one to kill a deer and bring it home to Pensacola.
Touart did not rule out the possibility that he might be charged.
"I'm not saying I'm not going to be charged," he said. "We're just
saying that we didn't do anything wrong."
While McNesby and Whitehead could face political repercussions from
the allegations, the controversy does not immediately threaten their
Gov. Jeb Bush's policy is to suspend elected officials charged with a
felony pending the outcome of their case, said Russell Schweiss, a Bush
spokesman. Misdemeanors are considered on a case-by-case basis, Schweiss
"Misdemeanor charges would not jeopardize county officials' jobs
unless the charges related to their official duties," Escambia County
Attorney Janet Lander said.
Chief Warden Randy Stark of the Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources said undercover state and federal agents posed as hunters
during the two-year investigation of Blue River Outfitters. The probe
was instigated by citizens' complaints.
Stark said Tuesday that ignorance of the law is no excuse for
"The vast majority of law-abiding hunters would agree with this: It's
ultimately the responsibility of the hunters to know and follow the law,
wherever they hunt," Stark said.
"Many of these charges are very basic, regardless of what state you
go to. I think there's evidence in this case that will demonstrate that
there was knowledge or that there should have been."
46 people charged
The Rev. Gordon Godfrey of Marcus Pointe Baptist Church, one of the
largest churches in Pensacola, was one of the first local residents to
participate in guided hunts with Blue River Outfitters, McNesby said
Tuesday. Godfrey, in turn, referred a number of his church members and
touted the outfitter to the sheriff.
"He said, 'Man, Blue River Outfitters is great,' '' McNesby said. "
'You're going to have a great time.' ''
Godfrey, however, also was among those charged last week. He faces 12
charges in two Wisconsin counties. He declined to discuss his case on
Of the 46 people charged, 42 face misdemeanor charges in state court,
such as hunting after the close of the season or without a license, or
civil infraction allegations, such as hunting deer over bait.
Misdemeanor charges typically result in fines and loss of hunting and
fishing privileges in Wisconsin, said Tom Krsnich, investigative unit
supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Four people, including Lawinger, were charged with felonies in
Lawinger's attorney, Marcus Berghahn of Madison, Wis., said Tuesday
that his client plans to plead guilty within the next few weeks.
Berghahn declined to comment further.
The Rev. Godfrey's brother, Jeff Godfrey of Lillian, Ala., was the
only local customer to face a felony charge: transporting an illegally
hunted deer worth more than $350 across state lines. The maximum penalty
is five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Jeff Godfrey could not be reached Tuesday.
Scott Lacoste, a contractor from Pace, was one of the Rev. Godfrey's
friends who signed on with Blue River Outfitters and Lawinger. Lacoste
faces seven charges stemming from a turkey hunt in 2003 and a deer hunt
"The thing that leaves me most stunned is that we were scammed by
this guy and now we're being charged for it," Lacoste said Tuesday.
Lacoste estimates he paid Lawinger $15,000 or $16,000 for eight hunts
over three years.
"I'm not going to pay that kind of money to go up there and get in
trouble for not having a $25 turkey tag or whatever it is," he said. "We
paid a lot of money to this guy for professional guide services. ... To
some extent, you have to assume he's doing right."
Lawinger actively recruited in the Pensacola area, Lacoste said.
"He became our friend," Lacoste said. "He came down here and we took
him out on a charter fishing trip after we had our first hunt and it was
pretty successful. I think it was a way for him to recruit other
hunters, mostly from Marcus Pointe Baptist."
A package deal
The charges against Whitehead and McNesby stem from a three-day
deer-hunting trip last February.
Whitehead said the package included lodging, meals, appropriate
licenses and transportation to the hunting site.
The cost was supposed to be $1,000 per person, but Lawinger ended up
giving a $300 discount because of bad weather, according to documents
filed with the Richland County Circuit Court.
"It's a turnkey deal," said Whitehead, who has hunted three times
with Blue River Outfitters.
McNesby said he didn't end up shooting a gun during the trip.
He said he was too cold and he didn't see anything he wanted to
Whitehead and McNesby were charged with hunting deer during closed
season and hunting deer over bait. McNesby also was charged with hunting
without a license, a charge Whitehead avoided because he obtained a
license during a trip the year before.
McNesby and Whitehead said Tuesday that Lawinger told them hunters on
private property did not need licenses and were permitted in some
counties to hunt during the off-season.
"It was perfectly believable," Whitehead said. "I'm a victim. This
guy stole $5,700 from me for down-payments on hunts this year. We've
been defrauded and the state is trying to prosecute us. That's not how
we treat our tourists."
McNesby said Tuesday he has expensive hunting licenses from several
states and would have gladly purchased one in Wisconsin if Lawinger had
not told him it was unnecessary.
But Wisconsin wildlife officials who came to Pensacola to interview
McNesby in May offered a different account.
"McNesby apologized ... for not getting a license to hunt,''
according to an affidavit by conservation warden Michael Nice of the
Department of Natural Resources. "He said he should have known better.''
Concerning the bait charge, McNesby said Tuesday that he did not see
bait on the snow.
But, according to Nice's affidavit, McNesby produced pictures from
the trip, one of which showed corn in the snow.
"McNesby stated he thought the corn was for bait,'' the affidavit
When asked about the discrepancy Tuesday, McNesby said the pictures
he showed the agents did not show corn.
McNesby said Wisconsin officials subpoenaed all of his trip-related
documents, and he turned them over.
He said he has hired Tallahassee attorney Steve Dobson at his own
expense. Dobson will locate an attorney in Wisconsin to represent the
Stark said Wisconsin hunting laws protect one of the state's most
"Our natural resources are a big part of our economy in our state,
and that's why we take cases like this seriously when a person
personally profits by exploiting the resources," he said. "That's not
what hunting is all about."