Two out-of-state hunters and a local guide have been found not guilty for wasting elk, a jury determined Friday night at the Park County Courthouse.
It took the jury three hours to render its not guilty verdict.
The verdict came at the end of a week-long circuit court trial that centered around two cow elk that were left on the ground deceased on public land near Heart Mountain after being shot.
Tyler Viles of Cody, Blendi Cumani of North Dakota and Roland Shehu of Pennsylvania were accused by Wyoming Game and Fish of leaving two elk crippled and another two cow elk carcasses unclaimed, although the two elk found crippled by Nature Conservancy ranch manager Brian Peters were, by closing statements, not part of the case.
Viles, a Cody guide, faced two counts for this charge, while Cumani and Shehu faced one each.
In closing statements Friday afternoon in front of judge Bruce Waters, the three defense attorneys – county defense attorney Travis Smith and attorneys Brigita Krisjansons and Joseph Darrah – all argued the state’s case was built on circumstantial evidence that left far too much doubt. They also questioned the investigation of game warden Chris Queen.
“The state’s case is a complete circumstantial evidence case,” Smith, representing Viles, said. “Ask yourself if that is the kind of circumstantial case you would want to fight and defend yourself.”
Park County prosecuting attorney Larry Eichle argued the evidence was enough to convict the hunters and guide.
“Our case is circumstantial,” he said. “A lot of criminal cases are circumstantial. Criminals don’t often give over a weapon. Circumstantial evidence, if you believe it, should be considered.
“Did they take an elk? Did they waste an elk?”
Eichle said most cases in a jury trail hinge on a few facts in disagreement, and during the final afternoon all four attorneys brought those discrepancies into full light.
On Oct. 27, 2019, in the Heart Mountain area, two cow elk were taken legally by Cumani, while defense attorneys said Shehu had trouble working his rifle, was only able to feed one round at a time, and never shot an elk.
Eichle alleged guide Viles had walked up to a blood trail leading to the two cow elk not picked up and decided not to pursue.
He also accused the two hunters of sloppy shooting, as Queen found 19 cartridge casings at the spot the hunters were shooting from. Defense attorneys argued there weren’t nearly that many shots taken, and Cumani kept his casings to reload them. Also, they said none of the shooters used Hornady ammunition.
What was not in dispute was that a third hunter in the group, George Schnell II, accidentally took a bull elk when aiming for a cow, which he admitted to authorities after Viles stopped the hunt and reported the incident.
Schnell was not involved in the case, a fact attorney Krisjansons said he was surprised about, and in fact was a witness for the state. He did receive a citation for taking the wrong sex of animal and fined $235.
Two key points of difference were in the distance the hunters were shooting from, and the caliber of bullet that killed the two abandoned cow elk.
Eichle said Viles had told Queen the hunters began shooting at 400 yards, but the defendants and their attorneys said the shots were roughly 150-200 yards farther out. That matters as the cow elk were deemed to have been shot around 400 yards from the hunters’ location.
The defense attorneys also brought in a ballistics expert who said with “98% certainty” one of the two elk was shot with a .30 caliber bullet. While Schnell shot the bull elk with a .30-06, Cumani and Shehu used 6.5 mm calibers, a .284 caliber.
“That couldn’t have fit in either gun,” Krisjansons said. “It’s impossible, (Shehu) couldn’t have shot the cow, and neither could Mr. Cumani.”
Eichle countered that bullets are made to expand and that determination couldn’t be relied on.
The defense attorneys also questioned the time of the investigation, and why Queen didn’t interview the two hunters before bringing charges.
He did talk at length to Viles, who attorneys said offered to assist Queen in his investigation after Viles had stopped the hunt and called his boss Brett Richmond, who then called Queen.
More details were also revealed about the day of shooting, which the defense attorneys said included the hunters making a last-minute move to a different location as 200-300 elk came toward them from a closer point than expected. The attorneys said that, as the hunters were experienced long-range shooters, Viles had them lay out prone and pick different areas of the herd to pick an animal to shoot at.
Eichle said the way they were spaced out, and with Shehu struggling with his gun, Viles couldn’t have kept a close eye on every shot and said one of the hunters may have shot one of the two cows in question without knowing it.
“This is sloppy hunting and I ask you to hold the defendants accountable,” Eichle said to end his rebuttal.
But it was the defendants and their attorneys who were more persuasive. All three attorneys pointed to their clients’ devotion to hunting and game meat, and to Viles’ five-year record as a guide.
Defense attorneys also dismissed the state’s charges due to the fact the hunters had all purchased cow, not bull, tags and were not coming to the state as “trophy hunters” but meat hunters, thus they would have no reason not to take cow elk they had shot and still had the tags to legally take.
Jurors were shown a picture of Cumani with blood all over as he field dressed the elk he had shot.
“Not one of them put in for a bull tag,” Darrah said. “They were not trophy hunters, they were hunting for meat.”
(Leo Wolfson contributed to this report)