Catching a band of wildlife killers

How a bounty of digital evidence led to the downfall of one of the nation’s deadliest poaching crews.

On a frigid black night in December 2016, Officer Tyler Bahrenburg stood in the garage of a rundown home in Longview, Washington, looking for the heads of two poached deer. The faint stench of death hung in the air of the building, a hoarder’s den of tools and refuse. Small drops of blood led out the back door. Bahrenburg, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife game warden with an easygoing attitude, followed the narrow path they made out of the shop. The home’s occupant, 25-year-old Billy Haynes, trailed behind.

The deeper into the yard they went, inching toward a rusting GMC Jimmy wet with rain, the faster Haynes’ breathing became. “I want to go back inside,” he stammered.

Bahrenburg, one of four wardens at Haynes’ house that night, reached the GMC, and that’s when he saw it: a pile of black trash bags, each one bursting with antlers. He stooped and scanned under the vehicle with his flashlight — more bags with antlers. In the bed of the truck, still more. “What is all this?” he said.

 

“You better be fucking honest and tell us what else you have here.”

A foul odor erupted when Bahrenburg opened the bags. Some of the heads were fresh; others crawled with maggots. There were at least a dozen. He looked up at Haynes, a paunchy man with a scruff of red beard, and saw that his chest was heaving. One of the other officers, a hot-headed rookie named Denis Budai, shouted in frustration: “You better be fucking honest and tell us what else you have here.”

It cracked Haynes wide open. These were deer from Oregon, Haynes admitted. He told the officers that he and another man, Erik Martin, had been on a long hunting trip — what amounted to a two-week killing spree of illegal, late-night spotlighting sessions. And these weren’t the only heads they had: There were 14 more at Martin’s house.

The wardens split up, two to Martin’s house, two staying with Haynes to collect evidence. It was midnight by the time the wardens met at a storage facility they kept on the outskirts of town. They formed a production line, tagging and filing the antlers and heads until 4 a.m., exhausted but ecstatic. The improbable turn — a search for two poached deer skulls that ended with 27 — marked one of the biggest cases any of them had ever worked.

But even after the evening’s staggering discoveries, the officers had no idea how much darker the case would become. Billy Haynes and Erik Martin knew something the officers didn’t: For years, the men had been illegally killing wildlife in the wooded Oregon-Washington borderlands, and they hadn’t been doing it alone. The investigation that began that cold night would be unlike any the wardens had known before, ultimately pushing the boundaries of what they imagined people were capable of — and what they themselves could endure.

POACHING IS DIFFICULT TO PROVE. It occurs in remote areas with few, if any, witnesses; the evidence is easily destroyed; and the wildlife agencies involved are strapped for resources and staff. Convictions are infrequent and penalties minor — a suspended hunting license, a small fine, or, in more serious cases, maybe some community service or a brief stint in jail. In Washington, high-profile grizzly killings have led to tougher poaching laws, including a 1996 state initiative that outlawed using bait and hounds to hunt big game. But legally, there was no distinction between poaching a single deer and engaging in large-scale, wanton killing until a brutal 2011 case — that of 20-year-old James Cody Stearns, nicknamed “the Headhunter,” who was suspected of killing more than 100 animals — spurred a new spree-killing law in the state. It’s not a law that gets much play, but its relevance was about to become apparent to the Washington game wardens.

They had searched Haynes’ house in response to a call from state troopers in Oregon, who suspected the men of poaching in a remote swath of Oregon forest where hunters were reporting strange cases of deer carcasses with their heads lopped off. The Oregon troopers had, critically, already seized Haynes and Martin’s phones, and as the wardens dealt with the 27 deer heads, the troopers were combing through cellphone data. Two weeks passed, and they called the game wardens again. The troopers had videos they needed the game wardens to see. The case, they said, had “broadened.”

Washington State Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Patrick Anderson uses a GPS mapping system in his car. He was part of the state’s investigation into a poaching ring that killed more than 100 animals.

Washington game warden Patrick Anderson, a wiry, quick-witted 10-year veteran of the department, drove down to Hood River, Oregon, with Bahrenburg. They filed into a briefing room alongside the Oregon state attorney general, a prosecutor and the state troopers’ sergeant. A hell of a lot of important people are here for a wildlife crime, Anderson thought. The troopers queued up a video recorded by a phone’s unblinking eye: a blur of brown and green and the sharp pitch of dogs baying, voices yelling about a bear in a tree, then the crack of a gunshot followed by a split second of silence as a black bear fell noiselessly through the air before hitting the ground to ecstatic shouts. Another: dogs, at least six of them, howling at a black bear, this one sitting on its haunches, exhausted after a long chase, and a man yelling, “Head shot!” followed by a shotgun blast. The bear crumples over. “Let ’em loose!” someone yells above the noise of the hounds. “Get ’em, boys. Get that motherfucker!”

Video after video played, each eerily similar to the last, the men’s hands and faces coated in blood spray from point-blank shots. The troopers had found evidence of far more crimes occurring throughout southwestern Washington, mostly in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, 1.3 million acres of thick woods flanked by Mount St. Helens to the west and Mount Adams to the east. What varied was the level of gore, the type of prey and the people involved; this was a much larger group than just Haynes and Martin. Most notably, it included a father-and-son duo whose reputation for illegal hound hunting was well known to the Washington game wardens: In 2008, the son, Joe Dills, was convicted of several charges for his role in a gang of poachers called the Kill ’Em All Boyz. A state Fish and Wildlife officer had spent six months undercover to bring them down. “In their mindset, the bear, cougar, bobcat were all there for them to kill — that was their only purpose,” the officer, Todd Vandivert, told me later. “And the game laws and all that were just in their way.”

In the Hood River office, the wardens viewed a tiny sampling of the tens of thousands of text messages and hundreds of videos the phones contained. The sheer volume of evidence, and the brutality of it, felt overwhelming. How many animals had these people killed — dozens, hundreds? They didn’t yet know. And why? The poachers didn’t appear to harvest much meat; they rarely kept pelts. Heads, when they took them, were apparently often chucked behind old trucks. Their trophies mostly seemed to be the pictures and videos they took and shared with each other.

The wardens had seen poaching cases before, but the sheer coldness of this, and the scale, struck them. They wondered how so much violence could have occurred in the areas they patrolled without them knowing about it. But the answer was obvious: A sweeping expanse of wilderness, the Gifford Pinchot is four times the size of Los Angeles, with only a handful of officers to patrol its maze of unmarked forestry roads. Heavily walled with hemlock, fir, cedar and bigleaf maple, boxed in with dense tangles of underbrush, the forest had a way of hiding what occurred within it.

Anderson and Bahrenburg returned to Washington stunned, with “the sense of standing at the base of a tall mountain,” said Anderson. Already, the clock was ticking. The first crime they had evidence for was the poaching of a black bear in the summer of 2015; it wouldn’t be long before the two-year statute of limitations would expire. Their captain grasped the gravity of the crimes and knew what the wardens needed to sleuth through the digital evidence and build an airtight case: giant computer monitors, a lot of time and no interruptions. Fortunately, they had just the right barren, isolated place for that kind of work.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife Officer Tyler Bahrenburg works at his office in Ridgefield, Washington. The deer head and pelts hanging on the wall above him were seized from illegal hunts. He was part of the state’s largest poaching ring investigation, which involved dozens of wildlife department officers and resulted in charges against eight suspects across several counties for crimes committed in Washington and Oregon.

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF KALAMA, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Oregon, sits a metal-clad, five-bay shop, the same facility the wardens had visited during the first night of the case. It was tucked at the bottom of a canyon and shielded from cellphone reception. Rimmed by barbed wire, the property was forgettable in its industrial pallor; the wardens called it “the black hole.” “Nobody can get ahold of you unless they physically drive out to talk to you,” one told me. “You can just go and disappear there.”

It was mid-January. Snow was falling in the Gifford Pinchot by the foot; in the canyon, sheets of rain poured down. Sitting at their desks day after day, the wardens dove into the digital evidence. They took a hundred screenshots or more for some videos — images of the patterns made by branches and stumps and rocks that indicated the exact spot in the forest where the poachers had killed an animal. “We would sit there for 12-plus hours a day sometimes and just do nothing but read text messages, write stuff down,” said Budai, who had just four months on the job. There was “a spider web of people,” involved in the crimes, and the investigators had to figure out how they were all connected. 

When the wardens slowed down the videos enough, they could see the water spraying off a bear’s fur where a bullet struck it on a rainy day. They came to know the poachers by the sound of their voices, the vehicles they drove, the dogs they owned, the guns they favored. Budai and his colleagues streamlined the complex cases, creating an ever-expanding master spreadsheet detailing each kill. They filled in all the available information and gathered additional clues however they could. Were there Instagram posts and videos corresponding to the crime? What were the GPS coordinates — hidden in the metadata of many of the pictures — telling them where each crime occurred? And were there text messages and Facebook posts with even more details?

Budai was assigned to investigate Haynes, whose Facebook messenger archive was a rich repository of shared kill videos. Seeking more, the officers scoured social media and found that Joe Dills was particularly prolific. He had no privacy controls, broadcasting his posts for all to see, including shots of poached animals. His distinctive brown-and-red pickup truck was also visible in a host of kill videos. Dills and the others seemed to be propelled by the same narcissistic tendencies that fuel so much human behavior — the need for recognition from a group of peers. “He was trying to gloat to people,” said Bahrenburg: “ ‘Look at this bull I shot.’ ”

Indeed. And when you have a like-minded group of people for an audience, even illegal and unethical behavior can quickly become normalized, said Nikita Malik, the director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism in London. “Criminals want to legitimize very bad things in their own minds and with their group of friends and followers,” she said. “You know what you’re doing is to some extent wrong, but you want a community that will tell you that what you’re doing is special or right.”

“You know what you’re doing is to some extent wrong, but you want a community that will tell you that what you’re doing is special or right.”

For the poachers, however, that impulse would be their ruin, as it has been for others in recent years. In 2017, two men in Florida bragged on Snapchat about poaching deer and were soon arrested. In April 2019, a Georgia group similar to the Kill ’Em All Boyz was arrested. “They would dispose of an animal as soon as they had taken pictures and/or taken the antlers,” an investigator told the local ABC affiliate. Later that year, three hunters using free-running dogs were arrested for poaching a mountain lion in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park after they posted celebratory pictures on social media.

That kind of nonchalance is common, said Malik, and not just among poachers; she saw similar behavior in the early days of the Islamic State. Sympathizers of the terrorist group would post their intentions and actions, giving the FBI what it needed to land arrests and convictions. “There are no considerations to long-term effects of this. It’s a kind of short-term validation,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I’m breaking the rules, and cheer me on for doing it.’ ”

In Washington, every game warden on the case was a hunter. But what these guys were doing? These were massacres. “I don’t think you’ll find any true houndsman out there that would support essentially anything they did,” James Van Geystel, a celebrated hound hunter the Fish and Wildlife Department has hired to help with ecology, public safety and depredation cases, told me. “The sport is not necessarily about killing an animal. I haven’t filled a mountain lion tag in a few years, and it’s not because I didn’t have one in my pocket,” he said. “What those guys did was just killing.”

One picture stuck with Budai: a mother and her cub up a tree, Joe Dills and the dogs surrounding it at the bottom. There was a text message that may have been about it, but there was no video of the hunt, and no clear evidence of how it ended. It is a generally accepted rule among hunters that you don’t shoot pregnant animals and mothers with their young. But these weren’t the kind of hunters who cared much for rules. Budai wondered: Did they kill the sow and her cub?

The wardens had mounds of digital evidence, but now they needed to find and visit the kill sites, scattered across the deep, mossy forests of northwest Oregon and into the Gifford Pinchot’s lake-dotted alpine reaches. They thought about the ways they could lose in court. Would a jury trust, or even fully understand, the digital evidence alone? Could an attorney instill acquittal-inducing doubt by asking, “Do you know that a bear died at this location?” Finding carcasses in the vastness of the entire Gifford Pinchot seemed like a long shot. But there was a chance bones still littered the forest floor, and locating them would bulletproof the case.

By March 2017, months into the investigation, there were many questions that the two original phones alone couldn’t answer, chiefly: Who else was involved, and to what extent? It was time to gather every wildlife cop the state could lend and execute a huge round of search warrants. The officers prepped tirelessly, made a list of everything they wanted to seize, and set a date for a coordinated hit on the suspects’ homes.

Denis Budai, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer who sometimes works undercover, stands in the storage locker of the agency’s facility outside Ridgefield. The skull he is holding, from an elk shot by Billy Haynes, was seized in the investigation.

MID-AFTERNOON ON MARCH 12, dozens of law enforcement officers — a third of the state’s entire wildlife force — huddled in anticipation: The poachers were out of town, and the officers couldn’t search their properties until they returned. Lookouts waited on the highways entering Washington and around Longview. Plain-clothes detectives kept tabs on the poachers’ homes while the rest of the force was secreted away in a nearby town, preparing to pounce on three of the houses simultaneously, with 10 officers assigned to each. Budai, fully aware of how new he was to the job, was anxious, but he had a good feeling. He planned to interview Haynes, and he had a hunch he’d be able to extract the information he needed from him — if only he’d ever show up.

Finally, their radios crackled to life. “I’ve got your vehicle. It’s coming across the bridge right now,” said an officer posted at the highway connecting Oregon to Washington. It was almost time. They grabbed their gear and paced, waiting for the final word. Then it came: Billy Haynes arrived at his home, and then Joe Dills did, too. Over-caffeinated, under-slept and running on adrenaline, the officers finally jumped in their trucks, blared the sirens and screamed toward their targets.

The reputation Joe Dills and his father, Eddy, had for being “Top Dog” hound hunters, as Bahrenburg put it, meant that the investigators suspected they were the nucleus around which all the other poachers orbited. Because of this, and because of Joe Dills’ role in the Kill ’Em All Boyz, most of the officers were eager to hit the Dillses' home, imagining a treasure trove of evidence and information. When the wardens reached the narrow ridge-top property the Dillses shared, their search was fruitful — an illegal leg trap, elk heads stacked in a shed, a full decomposing bobcat hanging from a tree. But their interviews were a bust; the Dillses kept their mouths shut.

Budai, however, had predicted that it would be Haynes who would do the most talking. Somehow, Haynes still seemed boyish, eager to find a community and be accepted. He had not excelled in high school, Budai knew. But hound hunting? He was good at it, and this crew of poachers praised him for his skill. Maybe, Budai thought, he had gotten in over his head and wanted to be free of his secrets.

Haynes was on his stoop when Budai arrived. After three months of living under a microscope, he had begun to unravel. Much like the last time they saw him, he was nerve-wracked, his breathing a labored, visible effort. When Budai asked for an interview, Haynes paused, spat, “That son of a bitch Joe is going to rat me out,” and then invited him inside.

Presented with crimes that took place over a two-year period, Haynes recalled every kill in piercing detail — who shot the video, who pulled the trigger, how the blood splashed. “I was amazed,” Budai told me later. Haynes cried. He said he’d messed up, and he started naming names. The officers seized plenty of evidence, including a gun that was a family heirloom. At that, Haynes’ father, who’d been pacing nearby, choked back tears. “I didn’t raise him to be this way,” he told Budai. “He should have never gotten involved with these people.”

All told, it was a bountiful haul — trucks, elk meat, bear skulls and GPS-enabled dog collars that synced with both handheld devices and systems hardwired into the trucks, the kind of setup that makes for easy following when dogs are on the chase.

The officers searched more suspects’ properties soon after, collecting even more evidence, including one unexpected item that would prove critical: an old JVC video camera that belonged to Aaron Hanson, who was connected to the Dillses through a mutual friend. After being caught poaching in 2014, Hanson had learned some of the wardens’ investigative techniques. A JVC doesn’t contain metadata; it’s easy to change the display to reflect a different date and time — easy to intentionally place events beyond the two-year statute of limitations. Hanson and a few others had been careful. They turned off their cellphones on poaching trips so that no cell towers could track them. They avoided being photographed. They didn’t mount illegal heads on their walls. When the officers seized their phones and the JVC, they laughed. “Good luck,” Hanson smirked. “There’s nothing on there.”

AFTER SEVERAL RAIDS, the game wardens now had about a dozen phones to explore. Once again, they sat at their computers. Spring was well underway elsewhere in Washington, but in the Gifford Pinchot, snow still gripped the forest. The “black hole” remained cold and quiet and mouse-infested, and as the excitement from the search warrant windfall faded, pressure to charge the poachers mounted. The statute of limitations was racing to a close, and the bones they needed to lock in their case were still buried deep under snow.

“I just look at the sheer violence, and if you’re teaching your kid violence from a very early stage in life, how is it going to impact them later in life?”

The first round of videos had turned up acts of brutality, but this latest batch was worse. At times, young children were the ones pulling the triggers; in other clips, they  laughed nervously alongside the men as the carnage unfolded. In one video, the hounds tore apart a wounded young bobcat still clawing for its life. “I remember looking at that and watching it and … I just couldn’t believe that they would bring their children,” said Bahrenburg. “I just look at the sheer violence, and if you’re teaching your kid violence from a very early stage in life, how is it going to impact them later in life?”

A major break came when, on one hunt, whoever was holding the JVC panned down and zoomed in on the screen of a handheld GPS showing the exact location and the true date and time. When Brad Rhodin, the warden managing the case, saw that, he cracked up. They could now calculate the difference between the date and time displayed on the JVC and reality. “That was our ‘aha!’ moment,” he said. “We got ’em.” With that, more and more puzzle pieces began falling into place.

They could finally link up all the different data points. Whenever a truck started, it triggered the GPS system, leaving a breadcrumb trail that revealed where the poachers and their dogs had gone. From there, the wardens would search the phones and, sure enough, find pictures or videos that matched the GPS coordinates. In some cases, Instagram and Facebook posts soon followed. “It just perfectly lined up,” said Anderson.

The revelations could not have come at a more critical juncture. They’d been sleuthing for months. Countless times, Budai told his wife he’d be home in seven hours, only to actually return 20 hours later. “It takes a toll. I have two little girls,” Budai said. On long days, Anderson wondered: Is it ever going to be over? When Bahrenburg was alone at the black hole, he felt trapped. Early on, the carnage sickened him. But as the months wore on and the violence continued apace, it became unnervingly normal, almost mechanical. And that was alarming in its own way. “I lost a lot of emotions,” he said. “You just become desensitized to it.”

Now, if only the weather would cooperate. The snowdrifts were still head-high. They watched with dread as the days fell on the calendar, clock ticking against their two-year limit, cabin fever a constant state of being. When May arrived, they tried to reach a kill site only to get stuck, forced to dig themselves out of the wet snow and call for a tow. There was nothing to do but pace and worry, and keep slogging at their computers.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife Officer Tyler Bahrenburg, Sgt. Brad Rhodin and Sgt. Patrick Anderson (pictured from left) visit a kill site located in the upper Lewis River watershed in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

JUNE 5 WAS A HOT, cloudless day. The forest had finally shed its snow cover. Anderson and Bahrenburg hopped in their truck and punched in a set of GPS coordinates from a phone video. It was a recording of the first bear kill they had evidence for, on Aug. 29, 2015, when Eddy Dills had touched his finger to a bear’s open eye to make sure it was dead. After two hours of driving, they were as close to the GPS coordinates as they could get by vehicle. They parked, then picked their way through the woods, down a slight grade toward a towering hatchwork of hemlock and Douglas fir. Before long, they were right on top of the pinging GPS point. They separated, scanning the trees, and then each started walking in concentric circles, covering more territory with every rotation. Looking at the green and brown maze before them, they strained to see the exact tree on a slight hill where the bear was shot, where it hit the ground, where it tumbled before coming to a lifeless rest.

Suddenly, Anderson registered a flash of white. Looking closer, he saw it — the top half of a bear skull and canine tooth, sticking out of the soil. Holy shit, he breathed. He bent down, looked at the contours of the forest floor, and everything came into focus: the tree, the shape of the earth. After spending so many hours staring at photos and video frames, he knew this spot well. “Oh, my God,” he shook his head. “This is it.” The bear had been killed almost two years before, and here it was, as it had been left. Tufts of its brown fur still gripped the earth.

“It really pissed me off. It makes your blood boil. … You get really fatigued emotionally, trying to go through this every single day. Stuff like that gives you fuel to keep going. This was one of those moments.”

Until then, the team had doubted they would ever find anything, worried that the GPS coordinates weren’t precise enough, or that so much time had passed that the remains would have rotted away or been covered with foliage, perhaps picked apart by scavengers beyond detection. But those worries were now put to rest.

They broke into teams, and for two more months they scoured the Gifford Pinchot. They found more bones, shotgun shells and bare patches of ground where decomposing carcasses had prevented new growth from rising. And even though no one ever admitted to the kill, and there was no photo confirming it, Budai made what was for him the most consequential discovery. “I remember when I walked to one of the kill sites, and we got on the tree,” he said, trailing off. “We found the cub, its bones.” Budai paused, took a breath. “It really pissed me off. It makes your blood boil. … You get really fatigued emotionally, trying to go through this every single day. Stuff like that gives you fuel to keep going. This was one of those moments.”

Finally, they had everything they needed. Just three days before the statute of limitations was up, they filed scores of charges against eight poachers for crimes spanning multiple counties and two states. Eventually, more than a dozen would be charged.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife Officer Tyler Bahrenburg at a kill site where the bones of a bear were found.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

THE POACHERS NEVER STOOD A CHANCE. The charging documents — which, collectively, detailed the largest poaching case Washington had ever seen — were hundreds of pages long. They described the kills in excruciating detail, linking up digital and physical evidence to eliminate any doubt about what had occurred. Hundreds of animals had perished in less than two years.

Depending on their level of involvement, the poachers received up to several thousand dollars in fines, and a few were sentenced to more than a year in jail. Haynes and the Dillses got the harshest sentences. (Haynes died unexpectedly before he could report to jail.) From the wardens’ point of view, considering the hours and resources they’d put into the investigation, the penalties seemed light.

That’s not how it felt to Joe Dills, who had recently finished serving his time when I reached him via Facebook in January. In his view, he and the others were simply doing “wildlife management,” a task he felt the game wardens had failed to properly undertake. “Washington state has a predator problem that needs to be addressed and I addressed it. The deer and elk populations continue to drop while the predator populations rise,” he said.

“That these individuals make any reference to killing predators to try and help the deer and elk population is ridiculous,” Rhodin told me later. “If they were trying to save deer and elk, why did they go out and poach so many deer and elk in areas closed to general hunting?” Now Dills, a lifelong hound hunter, has lost his hunting privileges for good.

Last fall, I drove up Highway 12 with Bahrenburg, Anderson and Rhodin, following twisting Forest Service roads to reach one of the kill sites. We parked where deadfall blocked our path, then walked another 20 minutes before entering the woods. The soil was damp. An undulating slope led to a seasonal creek and then a stand of tightly packed timber, the trees like towering sentries in the low-hanging mist. Just 100 yards in, the scene looked the same in every direction: trees and stumps and moss and rocks, each patch nearly indistinguishable from the next.

The wardens had learned a lot from the case — where the poaching hot spots were, that they needed to extend their patrols deeper into the forest, how technology is both ubiquitous and overlooked, a powerful tool in taking down a group so destructive. At the same time, little had changed. They still had miles and miles of remote roads and backcountry to traverse with limited personnel, and they often returned empty-handed. They knew that there could be plenty more poaching going on in the Gifford Pinchot, just out of earshot, and they might not ever find out.

Near the GPS coordinates, we started moving in circles, as the investigators had done the year before, trying to spot a specific stump where a bear had been shot. Within a few minutes, Anderson found it, recognizing the way the trees rose up around it and the bare patch of earth before it, where the bear had collapsed and its bones had settled into the ground. By now, the bones were gone, scattered by scavengers and covered up by a year’s worth of fallen leaves. 

Bryan Schatz is a writer based in Oakland, California. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.