What began with a fortuitous traffic stop by Ohio wildlife officers uncovered a three-state illegal deer-trafficking conspiracy that will lead the former co-owner of a hunting preserve to a 21-month prison term and a $125,000 fine.
Donald Wainwright Sr. pleaded guilty recently to 12 charges in connection with his Valley View Whitetails breeding and high-fence hunting ranches in West Liberty, Ohio, and Live Oak, Florida, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbus.
Wainwright admitted illegally shipped whitetails from Ohio to Florida and trying to do the same with a trailer-load of deer intended for a breeding facility in Georgia.
The case began when two officers of the Wildlife Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources spotted antlers and deer noses inside a cargo trailer driven by Wainwright’s employees and intercepted the shipment heading south to Georgia on Interstate 71, according to legal documents.
“Nobody was doing a criminal investigation” until that incident, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Marous.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office said, “The deer herds involved with these shipments were not certified to be free from chronic wasting disease, tuberculosis and brucellosis” as federal law requires. “As a result, deer herds in Florida were potentially exposed to these diseases.”
The indictment said, “White-tailed deer hunting is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. The infection of deer herds with tuberculosis, brucellosis and especially chronic wasting disease would cause immense economic loss to communities dependent on hunting revenue.”
And those diseases could “infect and kill cattle and even humans,” the indictment said.
Marous said none of those diseases have been diagnosed in the deer involved in the indictments.
Also charged in the indictment was Wainwright’s son, Donald Wainwright Jr., who is accused of conspiracy, interstate trafficking in wildlife and making false statements in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation.
Charges against the son are still pending, according to his defense lawyer, Kort Gatterdam of Columbus.
Before the plea deal, Wainwright’s lawyer, David Thomas of Columbus, made an unsuccessful bid to get the charges dismissed. He argued in part that the federal wildlife trafficking law — the Lacey Act — doesn’t apply because deer that are bred and raised in captivity aren’t “wildlife” or “wild animals.”
But U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. rejected that argument, saying, “White-tailed deer are wild,” and courts “should inquire whether a species – not an individual specimen – is wild because [the law] prevents animals that are normally found in a wild state from losing their wildness simply because they are in captivity.”
The indictment and plea agreement detailed a litany of criminal activities. For example, Wainwright put a federal ID tag from a dead deer that had been certified as disease-free on an uncertified breeding buck named Little Moose that he bought for $20,000.
Wainwright and a coconspirator earned about $72,000 from selling Little Moose’s breeding services and semen before the buck died in 2012, the indictment said.
He also swapped ear tags from other dead certified deer to live uncertified ones “to increase the resale value of his animals,” it said.
In addition, Wainwright and his son charged clients $1,000 to $50,000 to hunt inside the Ohio preserve although the facility lacked the required state license. The clients came from Michigan, Florida, Alabama and Virginia.
Among them: A Florida man paid $50,000 for his “juvenile son” to kill three bucks at Valley View, and three Florida men paid $20,000 to kill five antlered white-tails there. Toward the low end of the price spectrum, a Virginia hunter paid $1,500 for one buck.
None of the clients were charged with a crime.
In addition to the Wainwrights, the indictment said seven other individuals — identified by their initials — participated in the conspiracy. They included owners of other deer breeding facilities in Ohio, Florida and Georgia.
One coconspirator was identified in the plea agreement as Ben Chason, a partner in Valley View Whitetails and sole owner of another deer breeding facility, Cherokee Whitetails.
In addition to prison and a fine, the plea agreement prohibits Wainwright from hunting or serving as a hunting guide for three years after his release. He also must publish a statement in “Deer Breeders Gazette” admitting what he had done, summarizing his illegal activities and “warning others not to engage in illegal deer trafficking.”
Wainwright has sold the hunting preserve and is free on bond pending sentencing, said Marous of the U.S. Attorney’s office. No sentencing date has been scheduled yet, according to Marous and Thomas.
Along with the Ohio DNR and Fish & Wildlife Service, natural resources agencies in Florida and Georgia took part in the investigation. The other prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office were Heather Robinson and Peter Glenn-Applegate.