VIRGINIA CITY – The trial of Rep. Denny Rehberg’s state director began Wednesday with Randy Vogel fighting state poaching charges — but no longer making references to his earlier claim that the prosecution is politically motivated.
Authorities said no one other than Vogel could have shot the spike elk in an area near Ennis where it is not allowed to harvest such an elk. The prosecutor said Vogel then went on to wrongfully shoot a cow elk.
Vogel’s attorney said testimony from others in the hunting party shows that no one ever saw a spike elk in herd at which they shot.
Vogel, of Billings, is on voluntary unpaid leave from Rehberg’s staff. He was appointed state director for the Republican congressman on March 1. The next day, he was cited for poaching during the previous hunting season.
At that time, Vogel said the timing of the charges were too coincidental coming from a Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks under the Democratic administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
But Vogel’s attorney, Michael Moses of Billings, didn’t mention any political connections at all, or back up earlier assertions that the charges were politically motivated to embarrass the prominent Republican.
Prosecutors do not have the gun Vogel allegedly used to shoot the elk Nov. 18 and have not been able to make a ballistics test. Vogel sold the weapon in the parking lot of a Billings gun show to an unknown buyer before a search warrant was executed in January to get it from his Billings home.
Madison County attorney Chris Christensen said that investigators determined that the elk was killed with a bullet from a .270 rifle, and that Vogel was the only one in his hunting party with such a rifle.
He said the group was the only hunters on the Bar K ranch and that the neighboring ranch didn’t allow hunters and was actively making sure there were no trespassers.
“What is clear is that only those four hunters were the ones shooting,” he said.
Workers at the neighboring ranch found the dead spike elk on their side of the fence and traced the blood trail back to where Vogel’s group was hunting, Christensen said. They flagged down the hunting party on the other side of the fence and told them they would be calling a game warden.
The warden quizzed Vogel’s group about the dead spike elk — and Christensen said that the group was not fully cooperative with the warden who wanted them to walk the hunting area in question before they went out again the following day to hunt.
The group had killed two cow elk in one group of animals, and they told the warden that there were no spike elk seen. Authorities said there was another blood trail leaving the scene, but they were never able to track down the animal it belonged to.
Rehberg field representative Mike Waite was hunting with Vogel, along with two of Vogel’s relatives. Waite testified Wednesday that there were no spike elk in the small herd the hunting party shot at.
“Nobody saw one that I know of,” Waite said.
Waite also said the group had heard gun fire in the distance earlier in the day.
Warden Ryan Gosse said he ruled out any other hunters because public land was too far from the site for anyone to shoot the spike elk. He said the hunting party skipped out on an obligation made with him to go to the hunting site the next day and explain the details of their hunt.
The trial continues Wednesday.
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