After four years, a Montana man finally received a sentence in his elk poaching case. Earl Russell Benes, 27, was sentenced to 28 days in jail, an $8,200 fine, and a 10-year-hunting ban by District Court Judge Randal Spaulding, after admitting to game wardens that he shot three elk out of season from a vehicle—while his hunting privileges had already been suspended for the early 2019 offense of ramming his truck into antelope, then shooting them.
During the August 2019 investigation, Benes told warden Randy Hutzenbiler and Lee Burroughs, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks criminal investigator that he was coming home from a party and unloaded his pistol into the elk herd to "make these bitches move," killing several and leaving the meat to rot. A couple of days later, he shot a smaller bull, also leaving the meat to waste.
Despite the wasteful nature of his actions, the final poaching charges pale in comparison to the punishment prosecutors originally sought. The defense attorney capitalized on Benes recanting his confession, which was on tape, and the fact that the prosecutor did not ask the jury to consider whether or not the two larger elk fell into the trophy category. Authorities were also never able to locate the gun in question.
When the case began in 2019, the district attorney filed two dozen charges, which included eight felonies, according to court documents and reports from Helena Independent Record. If convicted on the original charges, Benes would have had to pay $278,500 in fines, on top of an 83-year prison sentence.
According to a previous article in the Helena Independent Record, Benes' hunting privileges had already been suspended prior to 2019 due to an incident where he chased down a herd of antelope in his car and shot them.
Despite his hunting privileges being suspended, confessing to the crime, and the previous misconduct, the April 2021 trial jury convicted Benes of just seven charges, which included two felonies tied to the elk being trophy animals, which carry an $8,000 value in the state.
However, the two felonies were dismissed by the judge, leaving only five for sentencing: hunting without a license, hunting during closed season, hunting over the limit, hunting while suspended, and waste of a game animal— a slap on the wrist considering the circumstances.
Kevin Peterson, who was the county attorney at the time of the trial, told the Helena Independent that he pushed for Benes to get banned from hunting for life.
The case garnered a lot of attention in the hunting community from the onset, with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks receiving phone calls from concerned citizens throughout the U.S., Europe and Australia who wanted the case solved. At one point, there was even a $3,000 reward for information, which is how they got the tip on Benes.
The verdict is likely to garner just as much attention as the crime. So far people are not happy about the sentence. The owner of Matrix Targets in Roundup, Montana, who also happens to share a name with the former prosecutor, told the Helena Independent that the punishment was not in line with the crime.
"In this day and age, to have somebody that's already a violator of game laws, and has a pending case (for the antelope incident), go through this, how could he ever keep his hunting privileges?" Peterson told the outlet. "He ought to be banned from hunting and fishing forever."
READ MORE: The Worst Poaching Cases of 2023
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