VIRGINIA CITY – A jury has cleared U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s state director, Randy Vogel, of three poaching charges alleging that he wrongfully shot a spike elk, ending a case punctuated by a missing rifle and abuzz with political intrigue.
“I look forward to getting back to work and helping congressman Rehberg serve the people of Montana to the best of our ability,” said Vogel in his only comment after the two-day trial in a Madison County court.
A game warden hand-delivered the charges to Vogel on March 2, a day after he returned to work for Rehberg, a Republican.
Vogel, who has been on voluntary unpaid leave since March, said it was a political smear campaign run by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks under the Democratic administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Vogel never brought up that issue at trial, nor did he try to prove the charges were cooked up by political appointees.
Instead, his defense focused on the lack of evidence tying him to the crime.
His attorney, Michael Moses, told jurors there was no testimony or direct evidence tying Vogel to the spike elk shot last November near Ennis. Moses, of Billings, argued that no one in the hunting party saw a spike elk at the time Vogel shot a cow elk.
Moses said testimony showed Vogel legally killed the cow elk with one shot. He said there was no evidence proving the bullet that killed the spike elk came from Vogel’s gun.
He pointed to a lot of questions and reasonable doubt in the case, such as a footprint along a fence that no one could attribute, a truck the hunters saw perhaps a mile or two away on public land, and distant shots some had heard earlier in the day.
“It’s a total disaster area. But it is not a crime,” Moses said.
Moses speculated that a ricochet from Vogel’s gun, if that was believed to be the connection, is not a criminal act.
“I don’t think one of those witnesses told you anything they didn’t actually believe,” he said. “I submit the evidence clearly indicated that Randy Vogel is not guilty.”
Madison County attorney Chris Christensen argued that only Vogel could be responsible for a for the dead spike elk that ranch hands found on the morning of their hunt, because no others were allowed on the two large ranches covering the area.
The blood trail of that spike elk was traced to the kill zone where Vogel and another in the hunting party took two legal cow elk. The prosecutor noted a third blood trail left the area, but that animal was never found.
“The fact remains the spike elk was killed with a .270 bullet and the defendant was the only one shooting a .270,” Christensen said. “How else does that .270-caliber bullet get into that spike elk?”
Christensen also hammered Vogel and his group for backing out on a promise to call the game warden and return to the shooting scene the next day. But he was particularly critical of Vogel, a former Billings police officer, for claiming to have sold the gun to a stranger in December in the parking lot of a Billings gun show before a search warrant was delivered.
“He knows that if we have the rifle, and we have the bullet that we do, we could know for sure that it was the exact bullet from the exact gun,” Christensen told the jury. “So now the gun disappears when they come to search. Think about that.”
Game Warden Courtney Tyree, who delivered the citations to Vogel, said he recalls him saying that he was going to have to handle the charges different because of his new job.
“He said I guess I will see if I have a job in the morning,” Tyree said.
Vogel, who has not had any previous hunting or fishing violations, testified that the reputation of his boss was on his mind when he was given the tickets because he knew the issue would become fodder for political opponents.
“I told him if this had happened a few days ago I would have handled this different,” Vogel said. “My thoughts were, ‘How is this going to affect my boss going into a tough election?”