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 new defendants in Lewis County.
Aaron Hendricks, 35, and his father-in-law David McLeskey, 58, both of Woodland, appeared in Lewis County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon for their preliminary appearances related to a trio of charges brought forth by the Lewis County Prosecutor's Office.
A third co-defendant, Aaron Hanson, 38, of Kelso, made his first appearance Wednesday afternoon.
The three suspects are facing one charge each 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.
Hanson pleaded not guilty to his three charges the following day, and was also granted $5,000 unsecured bail.
Hanson already has a 2014 conviction for unlawful hunting of big game.
Hanson’s attorney, Dan Morgan, asked for clarification on one of the conditions of release for the defendants — that they not have contact with witnesses in the case, which include children and family members of the defendants.
“These are lifetime friends of my client’s,” Morgan said.
Superior Court Judge Joely O’Rourke said he can speak with people involved in the case who he resides with, but he shouldn’t discuss the case. She confirmed that condition of release prohibited him from speaking with co-defendants.
Hendricks and McLeskey waived their right to speedy trial Tuesday, setting their trial date out to May, Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher said Wednesday. Hanson is scheduled to make his next court appearance on Dec. 21 to set his trial dates.
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 was 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 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.
Reporter Natalie Johnson contributed to this report.