Trial's first week
at a glance
• Moffat County rancher Rodney Culverwell, 41, is charged with 80 poaching crimes for allegedly killing 16 elk this winter, including 16 class 5 felonies and 64 misdemeanors.
• His defense attorney said Culverwell acted in defense of his property because the elk continually destroyed hay and fencing this winter.
• The 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office maintains Culverwell did not exhaust legal remedies before shooting elk.
• A 14-person jury panel was selected Monday and included local residents who described themselves as ranchers and hunters.
• DOW officials testified Tuesday and Wednesday that they offered Culverwell every option he asked for that was within legal limits.
• The defense challenged whether the remedies offered by the DOW in early February were useful.
• According to witness testimony for the prosecution, DOW officials observed 13 dead elk on Culverwell's ranch and three dead elk a short distance across U.S. Highway 40 on another person's land.
• Prosecution testimony concluded 15 elk died of gunshot wounds. The defense admits Culverwell ran over one elk with a tractor, which the defense attributes to the elk charing the farm vehicle while Culverwell was driving.
• DOW officials reported finding bullets and bullet fragments inside 11 elk in the case. A plastic bullet tip was reported as recovered from another animal, but a DOW officer testified he lost it in the snow.
• DOW investigators said they could not find bullets or fragments in three elk Culverwell is charged with shooting.
• The DOW submitted photo evidence of gunshot wounds in all 15 elk Culverwell is charged with shooting.
• DOW officials who testified they conducted surveillance operations of the Culverwell ranch and the area around the property on Feb. 13 and 15 and subsequent days said they never observed Culverwell or his wife shooting any elk.
• Two DOW officers said they heard a gunshot from the same direction they saw Culverwell drive his tractor.
A witness told Rodney Culverwell's jury of seven women and seven men Friday that a single bullet among 10 could be traced to firearms confiscated from the defendant.
The jury also heard, in Culverwell's own tape-recorded words, that noisemakers and snow machines are effective in wildlife control, contradicting questions from his defense attorney about the Colorado Division of Wildlife's game management policies.
Culverwell is charged with 80 poaching crimes, 16 class 5 felonies and 64 misdemeanors, in the deaths of 16 elk this winter.
DOW testimony for the prosecution so far has included that 13 of the elk in question were located on Culverwell's ranch, and three were found a short distance across U.S. Highway 40 on another person's land.
Pamela Mackey, Culverwell's defense attorney from Denver, has said she intends to raise her client's right to protect private property as the reason for him to shoot "some" elk. She said the elk destroyed her client's property - with little help from the DOW.
The defense also denies Culverwell had a hand in the deaths of all 16 animals.
An Oregon-based ballistics expert testified that one of 12 bullets and bullet fragments could be tied conclusively to two firearms confiscated from Culverwell.
DOW witnesses have testified that each elk in question except one died from gunshot wounds.
Ballistics expert Michael Scanlan, a senior forensics scientist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, could not conclusively tie all 10 bullets and two bullet fragments used as evidence in the case with two firearms confiscated from Culverwell on Feb. 22 by the DOW.
Scanlan said only one .17-caliber bullet and none of the bullet fragments could be conclusively said to have come from either of Culverwell's weapons. The one match came from Culverwell's .17-caliber Ruger rifle, which DOW officials confiscated Feb. 22.
Three bullets were determined to be .45-caliber lead slugs. Although a .45-caliber handgun also was confiscated from Culverwell, Scanlan said the bullets pulled from animals in the case were too deformed to match with the defendant's handgun.
"These are lead bullets, so they're soft," Scanlan said, "and they hit tissue, bone or anything else, they deform."
Although Scanlan could not tie the three slugs with Culverwell's handgun, evidence documents provided by District Court show the DOW recorded those bullets as being retrieved from three elk found on Culverwell's ranch.
Evidence documents also showed one set of bullet fragments too damaged to match with a firearm were found inside an elk on Culverwell's property, as well as the .17-caliber bullet Scanlan did match to Culverwell's rifle.
Scanlan also testified that five .17-caliber bullets found inside elk in the case did not come from the .17-caliber rifle confiscated from Culverwell. There has been no other evidence presented thus far tying Culverwell to a second .17-caliber weapon, except for four shell casings found in a truck he owns.
Scanlan said the casings also were not from Culverwell's Ruger rifle, but there is no way to match them with any fired bullet.
Evidence records did not include information that could be used to determine which animals the DOW found those five bullets in - if the animals were found on Culverwell's ranch - or which animals held another .17-caliber bullet and another example of bullet fragments too damaged to test.
The Culverwells speak
DOW Criminal Investigator Eric Schaller first met Rodney and Margaret Culverwell when he knocked on their door about 2:50 p.m. Feb. 22, the same afternoon DOW officials served a search warrant on the Culverwell's ranch.
It was Schaller's job to serve the warrant and question the Culverwells.
Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Snow intended to play excerpts from Schaller's interaction with the Culverwells - which Schaller taped with a recorder hidden in his pocket - but was told by Chief District Court Judge Michael O'Hara he could play the whole one-hour-and-15-minute recording or none of it after the defense objected.
When Schaller first introduced himself, he said he was with the DOW and wanted to speak with the Culverwells about "game damage issues."
Rodney said whatever game management policies the DOW had to keep herd populations under control, they didn't make sense to him. If the DOW would decrease the herds, there wouldn't be game damage issues.
"Obviously, right now, there is an overpopulation," Rodney said. "When I was a kid, you never (saw) an elk. Now, they're all over. : I've never understood why there's a draw on (hunting licenses). If you guys think there's too many, maybe you need to write the Wildlife Commission, because when we write letters, it doesn't do any good."
When Schaller asked about the seven dead elk in the Culverwells' hay stackyard on Highway 40, Rodney said any elk inside were in there because they couldn't get out. Either they were too weak to move, they were tangled in the fence or they had become too erratic to try and herd out.
"It kind of comes to a personal protection factor at some point," Rodney said. "It costs money, too. How long am I going to sit there and wait for it when (the DOW isn't) going to nurse it back to health, either."
During the conversation, Rodney referenced dead elk in the stackyard on Highway 40 and one elk he ran over with a tractor along the same road. That elk charged his tractor, Rodney said on the tape recording, and he had to hit it.
He did not tell Schaller about elk - which had gunshot wounds - near another of his stackyards or in a pasture on the west side of his ranch.
At one point, Schaller said it would be better for the Culverwells to be honest about any elk they killed and why. If they had real problems but didn't speak out about them, people might assume Rodney "got ticked off one day and started shooting."
"They're ignorant," Margaret said of people who would think that. "If that had happened, then there'd be 500 dead elk."
Prosecution's case ongoing
Schaller also recorded the Culverwells saying that using noisemakers and snow machines to herd elk away from their hay had worked to protect their crops. Previously, Rodney Culverwell's defense attorney has questioned DOW witnesses on why they would recommend landowners try to scare elk away when they knew it was not effective.
Schaller did not tell the Culverwells about the search warrant until about halfway through the tape recording, when Rodney resisted providing his .17-caliber rifle.
Schaller could not testify to when other DOW officials began their search of the Culverwells' stackyard, whether it was before he made notice of the warrant or after.
Another DOW officer present at the interaction between Schaller and the Culverwells may be called to testify Tuesday, and defense attorney Mackey indicated that officer may know more about when the DOW's search began.
The trial continues at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, with the prosecution yet to close its case. The judge and the attorneys said they were "nervous" about whether the trial will conclude by its Sept. 5 court deadline.
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org