Montana outfitter sentenced to confinement in lion case

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Outfitter sentenced to confinement.

BY LORNA THACKERAY OF THE BILLINGS GAZETTE STAFF

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull on Wednesday rejected a plea agreement in a poaching case that would have let off Emigrant outfitter Vernon T. Smith III with probation.

Instead, the 41-year-old defendant will have to spend six months in community confinement in Butte.

Telling Smith that his actions gave hunters a bad name, the judge said, “I think you’ve shown a blatant disregard for Montana state and federal laws.”

Smith pleaded guilty in September to a single count of aiding and abetting in the interstate transportation of an illegally taken mountain lion on April 22, 1997. Smith told the judge then that through his own negligence, a Texas hunter who had made arrangements to come to Montana had not obtained a mountain lion license. Smith said that he told the hunter to come anyway, and he could use Smith’s tag.

According to the government, the Texan paid $2,750 for the hunt in Park County. The hunter shot a lion they had treed, and Smith’s tag was used.

A plea agreement for a probationary sentence had accompanied Smith’s change of plea. But at sentencing Wednesday, Cebull said he intended to reject the plea agreement because it did not include any time in custody.

He gave Smith a chance to confer with defense attorney Michael Rapkock to decide whether to go to trial or to stand by his guilty plea. Smith came back into court a few minutes later and said he would stick with his guilty plea.

The judge said Smith could serve the six months at a pre-release center in Butte. Cebull also ordered three years of probation, a fine of $10,000 and $2,100 in restitution to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The fine and restitution amounts had been part of the original plea agreements.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the government asked that five other counts in the same indictment be dismissed. Smith will be allowed to surrender when arrangements have been made with the pre release facility.

Two other defendants, husband and wife Catherine and Joseph Thomas who run a taxidermy business out of Emigrant, also were sentenced Wednesday. Catherine Thomas, 42, was sentenced to a year of probation on a misdemeanor count of attempting to transport illegally taken wildlife across state lines.

Joseph Thomas was sentenced to three years of probation for charges contained in three poaching indictments. The sentence includes six months of electronically monitored home detention and restitution to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the amount of $1,600.

All three defendants are barred during their period of probation from hunting, fishing or trapping, and from accompanying anyone else engaged in those pursuits anywhere in the world.

The three were caught in an undercover wildlife operation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Joseph Thomas was sentenced in an indictment with international implications. He admitted that he sold the skin of a leopard that he had legally killed in Zimbabwe in 1994. Thomas told the judge that he didn’t know it was illegal to sell the skin and had no intention of violating the Endangered Species Act. He said he sold the leopard skin to a friend, but later bought it back. The skin never left his shop, Thomas said.

He said the skin represented a lifelong dream, and asked the judge to return it at the end of the case, along with files and photographs he used in his business. Cebull said that he could apply for the return of those items in a separate procedure.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com
 


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