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Hunting Accident File > VIOLATIONS > 2005

Wisconsin hunting guide gets the blame

McNesby, Whitehead shocked by charges from February trip

Kris Thoma and Brett Norman
@PensacolaNewsJournal.com

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 positions.

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 said.

"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 Lawinger's clients.

"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 Tuesday.

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 federal court.

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 in 2005.

"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 shoot.

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 states.

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 sheriff.

Stark said Wisconsin hunting laws protect one of the state's most valuable resources.

"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."

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