In the wake of the Waukesha Christmas parade murders, a sobering reminder: Murderers all start somewhere.
Most reasonable people can agree that the definition of human evil starts with a lack of empathy and respect for the rule of law. However, most human predators don’t start with murder; they tend to start small and work their way up to more shocking crimes. It’s easy to see this with the tragic, disgusting murders of five paradegoers in Waukesha, Wisconsin a few days ago; suspect Darrell E. Brooks, Jr. had long been known to law enforcement before he wantonly drove his SUV into the crowd. In his case, the crime “everyone knew about” was domestic violence. It was the same in the case of Van Buren County (suspected) poacher Justin Ernst.
On Oct. 17, DNR Conservation Officers Matt Page and Tyler Cole received a tip from Michigan State Police, that while troopers were investigating a domestic violence complaint involving Ernst, several deer were seen in a barn where Ernst spends time.
Shortly after receiving the tip, Page and Cole arrived at the residence to investigate the deer. Ernst had yet to be located by law enforcement following the domestic violence complaint.
The homeowner told the conservation officers that Ernst was believed to be under the influence of methamphetamine. They were also told that he often stays out all night, and the next morning there would usually be a new buck in the barn.
Receiving the homeowner’s permission to “search anywhere,” Page and Cole located and seized eight illegal bucks in the barn – five 10-pointers and three with 8-points.
See something, say something.
Two days later, Page received a tip from the DNR’s Report All Poaching hotline that Ernst had been arrested on Oct. 18 and was being held at the Van Buren County jail for his Oct. 17 domestic violence charge. The tipster also reported that there was another buck in the barn.
Page returned to the residence and again received permission from the homeowner to search the barn. There he located a 9-point buck that appeared to have been shot within the past 48 hours.
While searching the barn, Page interviewed two additional witnesses. One said they saw Ernst with a dead deer in the back of his vehicle earlier that month. The second witness had located the 9-point buck that morning.
At the jail, Page and Conservation Officer Travis Dragomer interviewed Ernst, who denied any connection to the poached bucks. He said he could not hunt because his hunting license had been revoked.
Thing about criminals is they tend to disobey the law equally.
On Oct. 20, Page executed a search warrant with Cole, Dragomer and Conservation Officers Zach Bauer and Sgt. Steve Mooney. During their search they located two shotguns and a crossbow, a bloody crossbow bolt from the bed of Ernst’s vehicle, a cellphone that didn’t work and a handheld spotlight located under the driver’s seat of Ernst’s vehicle.
Justin Ernst, 33, Decatur, faces up to $59,500 in reimbursement to the state if convicted of the more than one dozen violations he was charged with. He was arraigned Nov. 9 in 7th District Court in Paw Paw.
Ernst has a prior DNR conviction from 2018 for illegally taking or possessing whitetail deer. Previous felony charges on record for Ernst include possession of methamphetamine or Ecstasy, third-degree fleeing a police officer, and third offense (felony) operating a vehicle under the influence of liquor.
Notice something about that last bit?
Between the already-existing propensity for violence, the addiction to potent stimulant drugs combined with alcohol, and the clear motivation to flee the police, there are a lot of terrifying parallels between the way Ernst was apprehended and the tragedy in nearby Waukesha. In this case, we can at least breathe easy that no human beings died as a result of Ernst’s actions. It is, however, a sobering reminder that poaching is not a victimless crime, and that repeat poachers should be eyed very carefully for other, more disturbing crimes against their fellow man.
“It’s a shame that this criminal ruined the chance for ethical, legal hunters to have their opportunity to take one of these trophy deer,” said Lt. Gerald Thayer, of the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Not only did this felon steal from the natural resource, he also damaged agriculture crops, and has been doing so for some time. The financial penalty is the minimum he should serve.”
Ernst is free on bond and scheduled to reappear in court Dec. 20. The 15 DNR charges pending against Ernst include:
- Two counts of firearm possession by a felon.
- Two felony firearms violations.
- One count of hunting with a revoked hunting license.
- One count of applying for, or obtaining, a hunting license when ineligible.
- Nine counts of taking game illegally.