Wichita Two Texas brothers pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wildlife trafficking on Wednesday for offering guided hunts at Camp Lone Star in Kansas to hunters who paid thousands of dollars to illegally kill deer. The case is believed to be one of the nation’s largest federal prosecutions involving the unlawful taking of wildlife.
James Bobby Butler Jr., 42, the owner and operator of the hunting club in Coldwater, Kan., and his brother Marlin Jackson Butler, 36, who worked as a guide, acknowledged they conspired to violate the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transport of any wildlife taken in violation of state regulations.
The brothers, both from Martinsville, Texas, said in their plea deal that between 2005 and 2008 they sold guided hunts in Kansas for the illegal taking of 25 buck deer for which they were paid $77,500 in guiding fees and tips.
James Butler also pleaded guilty to a separate wildlife trafficking count related to a 2005 guided archery hunt for which he was paid $3,500. In that case, a Louisiana hunter paid an additional $1,800 for a hunting permit that was not valid in the county where the hunt was taking place. A few days later, the hunter paid another $3,500 to kill an extra buck deer beyond the annual bag limit.
James Butler also acknowledged he obstructed justice in April 2009 by ordering an employee at the High Roller Whitetails, a deer operation in Center, Texas, to get rid of five or six white-tailed deer mounts after wildlife officers began conducting interviews in Texas in relation to the federal investigation. The employee refused to destroy the mounts.
Kurt Kerns, James Butler’s attorney, said outside the courtroom that he planned to object to the 41-month prison sentence prosecutors recommended for his client, which he called “ridiculous.” Kerns said the plea agreement allows the defense to argue for much less. The government also is seeking a fine of $25,000 and restitution of the same amount to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown is not bound by sentencing recommendations in the plea agreement. Sentencing was set for June 2.
Marlin Butler pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge as his older brother in addition to a separate charge involving a 2007 guided hunt in which a Texas hunter paid $5,500. Although it was archery season, he acknowledged that he encouraged the hunter to hunt with a rifle. The Texas hunter killed a 10-point, white-tailed deer with a rifle after shooting hours while Marlin Butler held a flashlight.
His attorney, Roger Falk, declined to comment outside the courtroom.
Prosecutors are recommending that Marlin Butler receive a prison term of 27 months, a fine of $10,000 and pay restitution of $10,000 to the state wildlife department.
In exchange for the plea deals, the government agreed to drop the remaining charges in the 23-count indictment returned last year. Prosecutors alleged the brothers charged out-of-state hunters $3,500 per hunt with archery equipment and $5,000 per hunt with a firearm for guided hunts at Camp Lone Star and some 50,000 nearby acres leased for hunting activities.
Prosecutors contended that during the guided hunts the Butlers and others encouraged hunters to take deer illegally by hunting without a valid license. They were also accused of letting hunters illegally spotlight deer during night hunts and use illegal equipment, such as firearms during archery season.
Although the Butler brothers were the only ones charged, a court filing indicated that the government at one time targeted more than 60 hunters who illegally killed more than 119 deer between the 2005-2008 hunting seasons, including the taking of 70 trophy white-tail bucks. Search warrants were executed in Louisiana, Kansas and Texas.
The obstruction of justice charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while each of the wildlife trafficking counts carries a maximum five-year prison term and $250,000 fine. Federal advisory sentencing guidelines, however, typically call for far less time than the statutory maximums.