When a bullet shattered morning routine

HILLSDALE—Poachers aiming to illegally take deer by shooting from a vehicle on a public road bagged themselves a house instead.

The incident took place the morning of Sunday, December 2 on Pumpkin Hill Road, a rural dirt lane.

Ben Lucki and his wife were at home, still asleep, when they heard a loud noise, which woke them up and caused his wife to “spring out of bed,” Mr. Lucki told The Columbia Paper this week.

Through the window they saw a white van on the road. It had “strange, dark-tinted windows,” he said. In their bathroom they found damage wreaked by a bullet that entered through a wall, traveled through a door, ricocheted off the door frame and became embedded in a wall next to the vanity mirror.

Mr. Lucki said it had occurred to him that if they had gotten up a little earlier that day they could have been walking through the door or been in the bathroom brushing their teeth when the projectile blasted through.

He reported the matter to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office; deputies responded and turned the case over to state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officers. The case is currently under ongoing investigation.

“It was very scary. We live alongside [lawful] hunters, they own land behind us, we have never had a problem,” he said.

Though house-shooting incidents “are exceedingly rare,” he said, these perpetrator[s] should be considered a “scourge” and “dangerous.” A Pumpkin Hill Road resident since 2017, Mr. Lucki said he wants to draw attention to the incident, which could have ended in more than damage to his house, but as a “terrible tragedy.”

Another resident of the road, Tod Wohlfarth, said by email, “We have problems with drive-by hunters every year and every year since 2004 we have people dumping [deer] carcasses. We had eight dumped last year on our land alone. I put up trail cams after that and our other neighbor has paid patrols so he positioned a guy on the road overnight.”

In his determination to catch the culprits, Mr. Wohlfarth said he installed two new remotely accessible trail cameras along the road.

The morning of the shooting, his cameras recorded a white van driving up and down the road. He said there were “two guys in white panel van with a strange, tinted vertical window behind driver.” He communicated his findings to authorities.

The white van with dark-tinted windows caught on surveillance camera traveling the road at the time of the shooting. Photo contributed

In a phone interview DEC Lieutenant Jason DeAngelis said there are several charges associated with the illegal taking of deer: possessing a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle; discharging a firearm from a roadway; taking a deer with use of a motor vehicle; and taking a deer with the aid of an artificial light (the classic deerjacking charge). All are misdemeanors punishable by fines ranging from $250 to $2,000 and up to a year in jail.

Familiar with the Pumpkin Hill Road case, Lt. DeAngelis said he could not comment on it specifically as it is an open investigation. But “please don’t call [the perpetrators] hunters,” he said, “They are poachers.”

“The sad truth is, and it’s the same for any law enforcement agency, we only scratch the surface, we only catch very few of the people” committing these crimes. “The number of occurrences is easily 20 times that,” said the lieutenant, who has more than 15 years of experience with DEC law enforcement.

In Columbia and Rensselaer counties, which constitute a zone within DEC Region 4 (made up of nine counties), in just four instances of setting up a decoy deer during the hunting season last fall, the decoy was shot at twice. To have it shot at 50% of the times it was used is quite astounding, he said.

Environmental conservation officers use decoy deer, sometimes called robotic or “robo” deer to catch poachers who shoot illegally from their vehicles. Typically there is one officer stationed somewhere in the woods with a remote control to make the deer move and two more stationed in a pursuit vehicle in the area. When someone in a vehicle takes a shot, they are then pulled over and charged.

Between November 1 and December 31, 2018, in the Columbia-Rensselaer zone, 25 illegal deer were seized and 136 tickets were written for misdemeanors and violations associated specifically with illegal hunting, including trespassing and hunting without a license, said the lieutenant who serves as the DEC Region 4 Division of Law Enforcement supervisor for the two-county zone.

While hunting-related offenses are most prevalent during big game open season with a firearm, poaching season is not restricted by dates.

Illegally taken deer seized by the DEC are given to the Venison Donation Coalition to feed hungry people in New York State, said the lieutenant, and all illegal hunting fines paid go to the Environmental Conservation Fund to support conservation efforts in the state.

The success of the robotic deer may not be so much about the realism of the deer, which can turn its head and flick its tail, but more about the mindset of the poacher.

“When someone is really intent on illegally shooting a deer, there’s not much that stops him,” said the lieutenant.

Not even a nearby house.

To contact Diane Valden email

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