But hunters who videotape themselves illegally killing animals for kicks often get no jail time at all
HOUSTON, NASHVILLE–– Harris County Court Judge Jay Burnett on February 15, 2016 sentenced “crush video” maker Brent Wayne Justice, 54, to serve 50 years in prison for cruelty to non-livestock animals, including puppies, kittens, rabbits, crustaceans, and reptiles.
Justice and “performer” Ashley Nicole Richards were convicted under Texas state laws, after an attempted federal prosecution failed.
Animal Beta Project
Their activity in July 2012 came to the awareness of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA enlisted the help of the Animal Beta Project, described by Houston Press crime reporter Craig Malisow as “a loose affiliation of animal-welfare activists and online sleuths,” who identified Richards within 48 hours.
Notified by PETA, the Houston Police Department arrested both Richards and Justice, the videographer, with whom Richards was living.
State cruelty charges were filed, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office pre-empted the state case by bringing five federal charges under the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, which had not yet been tested in court, and added two counts of obscenity under other federal legislation.
Law overturned, then reinstated
The 2010 law, however, was on April 17, 2013 held unconstitutional by Houston U.S. District Judge Sim Lake. The Lake ruling obliged the federal prosecution to drop the cases against Justice and Richards.
The charges were reinstated, however, on June 13, 2014 by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the Lake verdict. Richards and Justice then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court in March 2015 declined to review the verdict.
“Richards ultimately pleaded guilty in both cases,” recounted Malisow, “and she testified against Justice in the state’s case. But Justice fought tooth and nail over his three and a half years in Harris County Jail, filing motion after ridiculous motion in a sort of kitchen-sink defense approach.”
Firing three court-appointed lawyers, Justice was eventually allowed to represent himself.
Claimed “kosher” defense
“Perhaps the most preposterous, not to mention offensive, of Justice’s claims was that a puppy mutilated in a video was slaughtered using kosher methods,” wrote Malisow. “To rebut this claim, prosecutors presented Rabbi Mark Urkowitz, one of the heads of the Houston Kashruth Association, which certifies retail and commercial establishments as kosher. He explained that only animals with cloven hooves, who chew their cud, are considered kosher.”
Convicted on February 10, 2015, Justice managed to delay sentencing for five days by feigning a heart attack and then obliging Judge Burnett to subpoena the results of Justice’s subsequent medical examination in order to bring Justice back to court.
“These people are still out there”
Concluded Malisow, “It should be noted that, while Justice and Richards were convicted for their crimes, their customers weren’t. These people are out there, and they are touched in the head.”
The 50-year sentence meted out to Justice came just short of a month after Wilson Longanecker Jr., 43, the former mayor of Sorrento, Louisiana, was on January 19, 2016 sentenced to serve life in prison for offenses including making “crush” videos showing himself torturing cats in a variety of ways.
But Longanecker accepted a plea bargain sentence on charges also including 42 counts of possession of child pornography, some of it involving bestiality; four counts of aggravated cruelty; and one count of obstruction of justice.
Lifetime bans from hunting
Life sentences of a different sort were handed to Tennessee hunter/videographers Densibel Calzada, 23, and Eddy Albert, 21, who did not receive jail time, but on February 9, 2016 were banned for life from hunting in their home state and 43 other states with reciprocal penalties for poaching. Calzada and Albert were charged after an investigation that began with a December 26, 2015 complaint that the suspects were hunting on posted land in Rutherford County.
Beer & dead deer
Two days later, a Smyrna police officer “stopped them and found beer and a dead deer in their truck,” reported Mike Organ of the Nashville Tennessean.
“That’s when we served search warrants on their phone and their house and started finding stuff everywhere,” Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency information officer Doug Markham told Organ.
Calzada and Albert “received the harshest penalty ever issued by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency,” Organ wrote, “after they illegally killed as many as 40 deer, and then took photos and videos mocking the animals.”
“Doing all sorts of things”
“They were getting on top of the deer and doing all sorts of things,” Markham said.
“Along with the lifetime ban,” recounted Organ, Calzada and Albert “also were ordered to pay $1,000 each in court costs, $5,000 in restitution, had their weapons — a rifle and a crossbow — confiscated, must perform 100 hours of community service for the TWRA, and were placed on 18 months probation.”
The videos seized from Calzada and Albert indicated that they killed markedly more animals than Longanecker, and possibly more than Justice and Richards.
But Calzada and Albert will serve jail time only if caught violating their lifetime bans from hunting or otherwise violating probation.
Making money vs. self-gratification
While Justice and Richards tortured and killed animals on video to make money, Longanecker, Calzada, and Albert apparently made their videos only for self-gratification. Longanecker performed cruelties which would have been illegal in any context. Calzada and Albert were nominally hunting, a legal activity, but engaged in illegal hunting practices.
This raised a thorny problem, both for prosecutors and for animal advocates seeking to strengthen anti-cruelty legislation to prohibit the production, sale, and distribution of videography focused on deliberately induced animal suffering.
Hunting cases much more common
For every case involving videography of criminally prosecutable cruelty or bestiality, many videos have surfaced depicting cruel acts undertaken under the rubric of legal hunting, often produced for public broadcast.
Often the “legal hunting” has turned out to involve illegal acts, but most successful prosecutions of the violations of game laws tend to come only when the offenses are exposed by means other than by just watching the videos––for instance, when former partners in crime have turned upon and testified against each other.
U.S. v. Stevens
Robert G. Stevens, of West Virginia, the defendant in the first attempted prosecution under the 1999 federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act, legally distributed videos of “hog/dog rodeo,” in which pit bulls are set on penned pigs. Though illegal in many states, “hog/dog rodeo” is recognized as a legal form of hunting, or of training hunting dogs, in many others.
Stevens came to the attention of law enforcement in 2004 for allegedly also selling videos of dogfighting, initiating the chain of events that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court case that in 2010 overturned the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act.
Jarrod Hayn & Larry Csonka
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in turn obliged prosecutors to drop a case brought against Jarrod Hayn, of Kampsville, Missouri, for allegedly selling videos of himself roadkilling deer.
Hayn could not be prosecuted for poaching because his videos did identify exactly where or when the deer were killed.
In that respect, the Hayn case was almost opposite to the prosecution of former Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka, who was fined $5,000 in 2006 for filming his NAPA’s North to Alaska cable television show on National Forest Service land without obtaining a special use permit.
Csonka was not prosecuted for other illegal hunting practices, but many other makers of hunting videos have been, including country musician Troy Gentry and former rock star Ted Nugent.
Gentry in 2004 bought a tame black bear from Lee Marvin Greenly, owner of a facility called Minnesota Wildlife Connection, near Sandstone, Minnesota, where visitors can photograph wild animals who have been domesticated.
Gentry paid Greenly $4,650, then filmed himself shooting an arrow into the bear while pretending that the bear was wild and even dangerous.
Initially charged with a felony violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits transporting illegally obtained wildlife across state lines, Gentry eventually pleaded guilty to improperly tagging a game animal, was fined $15,000, agreed to give up hunting, fishing and trapping in Minnesota for five years, and forfeited both the bear’s hide and the bow he used to kill the bear.
Ted Nugent & Jim West
Nugent in 2012 paid a $10,000 fine and was placed on two years’ probation for transporting a black bear he illegally killed in 2009 while videotaping a bow hunt for his Outdoor channel television show Spirit of the Wild.
Jim West, a hunting guide featured on the Animal Planet show Wild West Alaska, pleaded guilty in 2014 to four misdemeanor hunting or guiding violations.
Clark W. Dixon
Clark W. Dixon, 41, of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, host of the Sportsman Channel hunting show The Syndicate, was in September 2015 charged with two felony poaching offenses, including killing a grizzly bear for a fee in 2010 “without being a licensed and registered big game hunting guide,” reported Mark Thiesen of Associated Press.
In November 2015 Dixon in a plea bargain settlement of the charges accepted an 18-month prison sentence, a fine of $75,000, and forfeited the trophies and weapons associated with the illegal hunts..
U.S. attorney Karen Loeffler told media that “Grizzly bears, moose, caribou and Dall sheep were illegally killed in the Noatak National Preserve, with the illegal kills ending up on the cable television show,” Thiessen said.
“Five years of documented illegal take”
Alleged Loeffler, “The charges show five years of documented, illegal take of wildlife involving over two dozen big game animals,” in connection with at least four hunts undertaken to make episodes of The Syndicate.
“All of the Alaska hunts that appeared on Dixon’s show were conducted illegally,” said lead prosecutor Steven Skrocki, but the video was “edited to appear not illegal,” Skrocki added.
“Two production companies — The Outdoor Syndicate LLC and editing studio Zap Lab Ltd., both based in Reno, Nevada — and Outdoor Syndicate owner Michael Dianda, were charged with filming and airing footage without obtaining a permit,” Thiessen summarized. “The others who were charged, from Alaska, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Nevada, face misdemeanors or ticket offenses. Among those charged is Dixon’s father, Charles W. Dixon, 70, of Brookhaven, Mississippi. Authorities are seeking forfeiture of his aircraft.”
The penalties meted out to Clark W. Dixon and loss of an aircraft are substantial punishments, but still much lighter than the life prison terms given to Justice and Longanecker for offenses of similar consequence to the animal victims.
Justice was punished in part for his role in luring Richards, half his age, into the animal torture videography business.
“Evidence at trial showed that Justice had already dreamed up his crush business by the time he met Richards,” then a prostitute, “on a phone chat line,” reported Malisow. “Justice had Richards start with videos of her stomping crawfish and crabs. It was a safer, more profitable venture than turning tricks.”
Introducing children to hunting
In August 2007, by contrast, Future of Hunting cable television show host Kevin M. Hoyt pleaded innocent to felony charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with a nine-year-old girl, whom Hoyt had apparently introduced to hunting.
The case against Hoyt was reportedly dropped in June 2008, according to a court document, because the alleged victim “was unable to testify,” wrote Rutland Herald staff reporter Patrick McArdle.
The Future of Hunting featured expenses-paid “dream hunts” by children. Episodes were reportedly taped in Alabama, Ohio, and Tennessee. The show is apparently no longer on cable, but still airs on YouTube.
Continuing to encourage children to hunt, Hoyt was in 2010 cited for hunting with a child on property without the landowner’s permission during the annual Vermont Youth Hunting Weekend.
How many animals have been killed and injured through Hoyt’s activity is unknown. But Hoyt appears not to have ever been convicted of a criminal offense.
Hunting, after all, is legal, even when it isn’t.