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NJ: 3 ATV riders face big fines over illegal-hunting charges

3 ATV riders face big fines over illegal-hunting charges
Friday, January 25, 2008

BY BRIAN T. MURRAY
Star-Ledger Staff

Three members of a Passaic County family have been charged by state wildlife officials with indiscriminately shooting bear and deer from all-terrain vehicles.

Eight deer were poached and at least two bears fired upon, with one killed, since October, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, in a case heading to West Milford municipal court in two weeks.

Authorities said nothing about the trio's alleged conduct followed recognized hunting practices or the law. In addition to illegally using the ATVs and hunting out of season, one suspect fired a .22-caliber Winchester rifle, a firearm not permitted for taking large game.

New Jersey also does not currently have a bear hunting season.

"It's rare. We hear of things like this a few times each year ... but something of this magnitude doesn't always happen," said state Conservation Officer Andrew Hutchinson, the lead investigator.

Piotr Stelmach, 20, of West Milford is charged with illegally shooting two bear with the rifle. His brother Vicenty Stelmach, 27, of West Milford is charged with illegally assisting him, and he faces deer-poaching violations. Their cousin, Dariusz T. Baba, 30, of West Milford is charged with illegally shooting several deer, and all three face additional charges involving carrying firearms on ATVs.

The violations involve state hunting and wildlife protection regulations, and the penalties could add up to more than $11,000 if they are convicted.

State authorities said the probe began when police were told that two bears were shot Nov. 17 by two men riding ATVs through a wooded swamp off Ridge Road.

"A bow-hunter, who was apparently in the area and saw this happen, reported it," said Hutchinson.

"He called police at about 4:15 p.m. on his cell phone. ... He said he saw the bears running, heard what he said was rifle or pistol fire and saw the ATV riders," said Darlene Yuhas of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The ATVs were gone by the time an officer arrived, according to West Milford police. State conservation officers were notified, and they arrived the next day, finding the carcass of one bear and a light blood trail left by the second bruin.

Hutchinson said he believed the second bear survived.

A necropsy of the dead bear determined it had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle, but the state had no suspects until Dec. 8, when state officers got another telephone call from the same hunter who had called police about the bears. He dialed conservation officers directly, reporting that the armed ATV riders were back.

"Because we received the call so quickly, our officers responded immediately and found the ATV riders, which led to further investigation and eventually the filing of multiple charges," said Yuhas.

Hutchinson claims to have found Piotr Stelmach and his cousin, Baba, with firearms and driving ATVs in the Ridge Road area, where Stelmach lives. Summonses were not immediately issued, but the two were interviewed, and both men denied involvement in the bear shootings, according to a report Hutchinson filed.

During subsequent visits to Piotr Stelmach's home, illegally harvested deer were found, according to state reports, which contend that Stelmach eventually admitted shooting the bears with a rifle and implicated his older brother.

The three suspects could not be reached for comment, and township court authorities said they have not yet been notified whether any of the suspects has retained an attorney.

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