Craig After almost nine hours of deliberation, Rodney Culverwell's jury found him guilty of 16 of 80 poaching charges filed against him April 1 by the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office.
Culverwell was convicted of four of 16 counts of willful destruction of big game, a Class 5 felony; four of 16 counts of illegal possession of wildlife, a misdemeanor; four of 16 counts of hunting without a license, a misdemeanor; four of 16 counts of hunting out of season; and none of 16 counts of waste of edible game meat.
His wife, Margaret, sobbed when the judge read the first guilty verdicts.
All charges leading to convictions related to the same four elk. Culverwell was acquitted on all counts relating to other elk in the case.
Culverwell's sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 4. A possible sentence in the case can include jail time, fines, parole and hunting license suspensions.
More than 20 audience members watched court proceedings, when attorneys for both sides laid out the case as they saw it.
The prosecutor and the defense attorney had different plans for how Rodney Culverwell's jury should view the evidence.
"This is not a case between Mr. Culverwell and the Division of Wildlife," said Jeremy Snow, deputy district attorney for the 14th Judicial District, during closing arguments Friday. "This case is about whether he broke the laws of Colorado."
The jury should convict the defendant because he broke the law, he added, "and no man is above the law."
Pamela Mackey, Culverwell's defense attorney, agreed with Snow's last point, but she said it is a mischaracterization to say the DOW has no place in jury deliberations for several reasons.
First, a "sloppy" investigation by the DOW did not find evidence that proves Culverwell killed all 16 elk charged by the District Attorney's Office, Mackey said.
Second, testimony from ranchers proves many residents do not think the DOW will help them. This same belief, shared through experience, Mackey said, drove Culverwell to protect his property, himself and his family and put animals out of their misery through illegal means.
Prosecution spoke first
Throughout his closing argument, Snow said Culverwell did not make use of available legal means to solve his problems and that the defendant misrepresented his actions while testifying.
Culverwell admitted to killing six elk this winter. Of those, Culverwell testified he shot three because they were caught in his fence.
He said he couldn't pull his fences back up with their weight tangled in them and that he couldn't cut them loose alive because the elk would be dangerous.
There were other solutions besides shooting them right away, Snow said.
Receipts of fencing material purchases made by Culverwell and his wife, Margaret, on the same days Culverwell testified he shot the elk show he was gone from his ranch for at least two hours that day with the elk still tangled.
"That's a lot of time," Snow said. "There is no question (Culverwell) needed to repair that fence by that evening, certainly. But that day, before he left to buy his own (fencing materials), he could have simply walked over, called the DOW. He didn't give them that opportunity."
Nor did Culverwell attempt to stand on the other side of his fences, away from the elk stuck there, and cut them loose before killing them, Snow said.
He shot them "because it was convenient to him to protect his property that way," Snow told the jury. "He didn't want to call the DOW; he didn't want to have to deal with them; he wanted to do it his way."
For 10 other elk that Snow's office charged Culverwell with shooting, the deputy district attorney played back excerpts from a covert recording of a conversation between Culverwell and DOW Criminal Investigator Eric Schaller.
In the excerpt, Culverwell discusses three or four other elk in his stackyard that he may have killed. Snow pointed out carcass locations to the jury and said Culverwell's recorded descriptions matched the scene found by DOW investigators.
The other six or seven elk found on and near Culverwell's ranch were shot with a .17-caliber rifle, Snow said. Although the DOW did not find a second .17-caliber firearm on Culverwell's property, shell casings from two distinct .17-caliber weapons were found in his truck.
Snow said that made it clear the defendant had access to two weapons that match ballistics evidence from all elk Culverwell denied shooting.
The defense followed
The DOW's investigation has too many holes to convict, Mackey said.
For one, there is no ballistics evidence that links Culverwell to any bullet found except in the case of one elk, she said.
"They didn't (find that evidence), and because they didn't, they now ask you to guess, to infer, that Rodney Culverwell had another .17-caliber weapon that was used to kill other animals," Mackey said to the jury, referring to 10 elk Culverwell said he did not kill.
A ballistics expert testified there is no way to scientifically link shell casings to bullets. Mackey said this is another inference the prosecution was asking the jury to make.
The District Attorney's Office spent nearly four days proving those animals were shot, Mackey said, but they never addressed the question of who shot them.
"Was the question ever answered beyond a reasonable doubt?" she asked. "No."
The DOW could have searched Culverwell's home and discovered for certain there was no other weapon to be found, but they did not and said they didn't want to be "heavy-handed," Mackey said.
However, Mackey said, the DOW had no problem arriving at their home with hidden tape-recorders while 16 other officers searched their ranch without their knowledge.
"Don't let them get away with their sloppy gathering of evidence," Mackey said. "That's their job. They didn't do it."
On the charges involving the six elk Culverwell said he killed this winter, Mackey said testimony from almost every rancher who took the stand in the past two weeks proved the DOW is not a competent agency.
Therefore, she said, he was forced to take the law into his own hands, as the law allows.
"What I hope we have shown you is that many ranchers in your community, including Mr. Culverwell, do not believe the DOW will come help them," Mackey said. "This DOW that doesn't have the time or the materials to help ranchers."
She noted only the "respected, powerful and wealthy" Raftopoulos family were the only ranchers who testified on the DOW's behalf, a family that had every game damage claim paid in full this year and had DOW officials herd elk off their property, shoot wildlife and field dress the animals themselves.
Other ranchers testified the DOW was not nearly as helpful, Mackey said.
"You are allowed to do what it takes, in a reasonable and necessary way," she said, "to protect yourself and your property."