Van Buren County suspect charged in poaching of nine trophy bucks

page-cole-van buren casePolice investigating an October domestic violence complaint discovered nine poached bucks in a barn located in Decatur.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers determined the illegal, trophy deer belonged to a previously convicted felon who is suspected of driving his truck through fields, shining and shooting deer.

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 ecstacy, third-degree fleeing a police officer and third offense (felony) operating a vehicle under the influence of liquor.

“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.”

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.

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 at.

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.

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.

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.

Ernst is free on bond and scheduled to reappear in court Dec. 20.

Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned law enforcement officers who provide natural resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect residents through general law enforcement and conducting lifesaving operations in the communities they serve.