The scope of a large scale investigation into a network of poachers based out of Southwest Washington continues to widen, and the most recent development has put the focus on a trio of new defendants in Lewis County.
Aaron Hendricks and his father-in-law David McLeskey, both of Woodland, appeared in Lewis County Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon for their preliminary appearances related to a trio of charges brought forth by the Lewis County Prosecutor's Office. Information provided by the prosecutor’s office Tuesday morning also lists Aaron Hanson as a co-defendant, and he is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday afternoon. The three suspects are facing charges of first-degree animal cruelty, unlawful hunting of black bear, cougar, bobcat or lynx with dogs, and second-degree unlawful hunting of wild animals.
On Tuesday Hendricks and and McLeskey both pleaded not guilty to all three charges and were released on $5,000 unsecured bail.
The alleged poaching crimes date back to the fall of 2015 during the heart of a wide-ranging poaching spree that has so far produced at least eight other defendants charged with similar crimes. The investigation was triggered on Dec. 3, 2016, when the Oregon State Patrol contacted a pair of Cowlitz County men suspected of poaching buck deer near The Dalles. Those two men, William Haynes and Erik Martin, are currently facing a barrage of charges in Skamania County Superior Court related to various illegal hunting activities conducted primarily within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
During that initial traffic stop, Haynes and Martin admitted to poaching deer and a gray squirrel in Oregon. They turned their cellphones over to law enforcement for review. Later that evening, some 26 deer skulls were recovered from the residences of Haynes and Martin. Additional reviews of their cellphone records uncovered a sordid trove of video, photographs and text message evidence linking the men to a network of poachers who often illegally employed hound dogs to tree and kill bears and bobcats, among other animals. That cellphone evidence also identified Hendricks, McLeskey and Hanson as suspects and co-conspirators in those illegal activities, according to court documents.
On March 12, 2017, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police served a search warrant at Hendricks’ home in Woodland and recovered a camcorder. The contents of the camcorder were reviewed by Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Det. Cory Robinson and found to contain multiple videos that appear to show Hendricks, McLeskey and Hanson participating in bobcat poaching activity in Lewis County.
Both offending hunts are believed to have taken place between Nov. 26 and Nov. 30, 2015, with Nov. 27 listed as the most likely date. The first video recovered from the camcorder shows Hendricks holding the camera and walking on snow-covered Forest Road 85 within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest early in the morning before reaching a tree surrounded by barking dogs. According to the report, Hanson can be seen in the video coaching the dogs, and later on he can be seen posing for a photograph with a juvenile next to a dead bobcat.
According to a report, the second video, likey from the same day, shows Hendricks walking down Forest Road 84 as dogs can are heard barking in the background. An unidentified voice can be heard saying, “I’ll try and wing it out.” The video then allegedly shows a bobcat being shot twice before falling to lower branches in the tree. The report says that Hanson can then be seen climbing the tree and pushing the live bobcat to the ground where it was immediately surrounded by dogs. According to WDFW Police Officer Tyler Bahrenburg’s report, the video shows the bobcat attempting to defend itself as it was bitten, torn and crushed to death by the dogs.
During an interview with the WDFW on May 23, 2017, Hendricks’ 11-year old daughter, who was present during the alleged poaching incidents, told investigators that her father, her grandfather (McLeskey) and Hanson were all present during the illegal bobcat hunts. Hendricks’ then 10-year-old stepson is also believed to have been present during the poaching excursions.
Hendricks and McLeskey are not due back in court until Feb. 8, 2018.