Hunters, guide found not guilty in elk hunt case

Posted 9/10/20

Two non-resident hunters and a local guide have been found not guilty of wanton waste in connection with their 2019 elk hunt on Heart Mountain.

Following a four-day trial in Park County Circuit …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Hunters, guide found not guilty in elk hunt case


Two non-resident hunters and a local guide have been found not guilty of wanton waste in connection with their 2019 elk hunt on Heart Mountain.

Following a four-day trial in Park County Circuit Court, jurors acquitted guide Tyler Viles and his clients, Roland Shehu, of Philadelphia and Blendi Cumani of Minot, North Dakota.

The men’s defense attorneys — Brigita Krisjansons, Joey Darrah and Travis Smith — provided testimony from a ballistics expert and witnesses that the trio was not to blame for dead elk discovered after their hunt on the Two Dot Ranch.

“They’re very ethical hunters,” said Krisjansons, who represented Shehu. “They only hunt for meat and are never going to leave elk in the field because they came out here to get meat for their family.”

Shehu had legally harvested two cow elk while a third member of the hunting party, George H. Schnell II, mistakenly took a bull elk with a cow license, admitted to his mistake and paid a fine.

It was the deaths of four other elk that were in dispute. The hunters were accused of shooting at least 19 times into a moving herd of elk and then failing to check the field for carcasses. The state, represented by Deputy Park County Attorney Larry Eichele, contended that the group had mortally wounded or killed two other cows and two other bulls.

In court, local hunter Heath Worstell testified he was 600 yards from the group of hunters with his wife and son when the group opened fire on the herd. Eichele, the prosecutor, asked Worstell how long the shooting lasted. “It seemed like forever,” Worstell answered.

Eichele also called Brian Peters to the stand. The co-manager of The Nature Conservancy’s property at Heart Mountain testified he saw two mortally wounded elk falling behind the fleeing herd after the group opened fire. Peters later led Wyoming Game and Fish Department area game warden Chris Queen to the elk, where Queen was forced to put down a bull and cow due to gunshot wounds to the legs.

The following day, Queen returned to the scene to look for evidence and found two more dead elk. He retrieved a bullet from one of the elk, but was unable to find a bullet hole in the second, which had been chewed on by scavengers. The warden ultimately cited Cumani, Shehu and Viles for wanton waste.

But in court, ballistics expert Jack Peterson, the owner of Cody’s Best of the West, testified the bullet Queen found in the dead elk was most likely a .308, but definitely not the 6.5-284 Norma rounds used by Cumani and Shehu.

“Nobody knows who shot it. Nobody knows if one was even shot. And then the bullet that was recovered was from a weapon our clients didn’t own,” Krisjansons said after the proceedings.

Darrah said Queen made a mistake by not checking the recovered bullet earlier.

“The warden in this case didn’t have any kind of a ballistics expert look at the bullet that they pulled out of the one carcass until July of this year,” Darrah said.

Queen also recovered 19 casings by using a metal detector where the three hunters took their positions during the hunt. Knowing where each hunter laid in the prone position, Queen and a forensics investigator found 17 6.5-284 Norma casings and two 30.06 casings. He knew the 30.06 cases were from Schnell, who accidentally shot a spike bull — the first shot mortally wounding the bull and the second finishing him off.

The other 17 casings were attributed to Shehu (six) and Cumani (11). But Peterson testified that six of the casings were a different brand from those used by the two hunters.

“The evidence was pretty overwhelming that these guys were conscientious. They knew what they were doing,” Darrah said. “The guide self reported that one of the hunters [Schnell] had shot a bull on a cow tag. They knew the game warden was coming. And one of the hunters hadn’t filled this tag yet. So why would he leave an elk in the field?”

Darrah said the trial could have been avoided had Queen interviewed Cumani and Shehu prior to the trial.

“Unfortunately for Warden Queen, the first time he ever heard these guys tell their story was at trial,” Darrah said. “He never bothered to contact them and ask them their versions.”

In an interview, Queen said the jury’s not guilty verdict was the result of “obviously our inability to present enough evidence to the jury.”

“We knew it was gonna be a tough case to prosecute, but I felt that there was enough evidence to charge those guys,” he said. “If I had that same kind of decision to make right now, I would still charge those guys with that crime.”

Game and Fish citations are typically paid, Darrah said, and most people couldn’t afford to take the case to trial.

“You’re talking about a $435 fine, which most people would pay because they can’t afford to hire an attorney to fight something like that,” he said. “These people spent tens of thousands of dollars to fight a $435 fine, because it was not right.”

“[The state] should make sure they do a good job if they’re going to put people through this,” Darrah added. “Because if this would have been just some guy that was not a doctor and couldn’t afford this, he just pays the fine and goes on his way, right? Even if he knows he didn’t shoot it. So I’m hoping that somebody learned something here.”

Krisjansons said that, “justice was done.”

The Tribune was unable to reach defense attorney Smith, who represented Viles.