A local hunting guide and two of his clients are being tried this week in connection with allegations that they opened fire on a herd of elk on Heart Mountain, killing or mortally wounding multiple …
A local hunting guide and two of his clients are being tried this week in connection with allegations that they opened fire on a herd of elk on Heart Mountain, killing or mortally wounding multiple animals last fall. The case centers around who killed or wounded four elk.
The trial of guide Tyler Viles and his clients Blendi Cumani of Minot, North Dakota, and Roland Shehu, of Philadelphia, began Tuesday in Park County Circuit Court in Powell. Viles is facing two misdemeanor charges of wanton waste, while Cumani and Shehu face one count apiece.
In opening statements, Deputy Park County Attorney Larry Eichele said the evidence would show the hunting party — which included a third client — shot into the herd 19 times. Eichele said the group killed four cows and a bull while mortally wounding another cow and a bull during a hunt on the morning of Oct. 27, 2019.
However, Shehu’s defense attorney, Brigita Krisjansons, told the six-member jury that they would hear little evidence from the prosecution.
“We’re going to hear a lot about what the state and their witnesses believe happened, their preconceived notions and frankly, guesswork,” Krisjansons said.
Viles, Cumani and Shehu have all pleaded not guilty to the allegations.
In an affidavit filed in support of the charges, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Game Warden Chris Queen said his investigation began when Viles’ boss reported that a client accidentally shot a bull elk while in possession of a cow tag. Queen was responding to the scene at the Two Dot Ranch when he got a second call from a local land manager, who described a group shooting into a nearby herd; two wounded elk had run to private property on Heart Mountain owned by The Nature Conservancy, Queen was told.
Before arriving at the scene, Queen called a hunter known to be in the area and was told that the “Two Dot guys” had been shooting at the herd of elk and “must have shot 30 times,” according to the affidavit.
Queen eventually recovered 19 casings during his investigation. Two of them matched the gun being used by client George H. Schnell II, the affidavit says. Schnell — who is not a defendant in the case — reportedly told the warden that a bull had walked in front of a cow he was attempting to harvest. When Schnell’s first shot didn’t dispatch the bull, a second shot was taken to finish him off, Queen said. Schnell reportedly said “he owned the mistake and was willing to be accountable for the consequences,” and in early November 2019, he paid $235 for a misdemeanor offense of taking the wrong sex of animal. He was allowed to keep the meat from the bull.
As for the other 17 casings, Queen said those were consistent with shots taken by Cumani and Shehu. Cumani had two cow tags that he filled, while Shehu had a cow tag that he did not fill. However, Queen concluded that the hunters also hit another three cows and a bull and failed to recover them; Queen said he had to dispatch the bull and one of the cows after finding them crippled, then discovered the carcasses of two other cow elk the following day.
Viles reportedly told Queen at the scene that he had “kicked the entire area out” in searching for injured elk and found no signs. Krisjansons, the defense attorney for Shehu, said in her opening statement that her client will similarly testify that he looked for wounded animals.
Krisjansons also said the defense will be calling ballistics experts in a case that’s scheduled to run through the end of the week.
Travis Smith, the defense attorney representing Viles, and Joey Darrah, the attorney for Cumani, did not make separate opening statements.
Wyoming law defines wanton waste as “to leave, abandon or allow any edible portion of meat from a big game animal, game bird, game fish or small game animal to become tainted, rotten or otherwise unfit for human consumption prior to processing at a person’s home or at a processor.” The misdemeanor crime is punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of not more than $1,000, or both.
The Circuit Court of the Fifth Judicial District has jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases. As the six-man and one-woman jury — made up of six jurors and an alternate — took instructions from Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters on Tuesday, the ongoing pandemic came up several times. The first order of business was the protective masks worn by those in attendance. After a short discussion, all but one person decided to remove their masks.
“I thought this was going to be a losing battle anyway,” Waters said.
Not only did the judge point out safeguards taken in the first local jury trial since the lockdown, he also cautioned jurors to not talk about the case with other people during breaks.
“It’s a good idea to pretend like they all have COVID and try and keep your distance from them during breaks or during recesses,” Waters said.
The case would have been tried at the Park County Courthouse in Cody under normal conditions, but was moved to the Powell courtroom because it offers more space for jurors.
(CJ Baker contributed reporting.)