A few years ago, a hunter cited for breaking the law would pay $400 in restitution per deer.
The price tag has since bounded to more than $27,000.
A Bellevue hunter is facing a record $27,851.33 bill for the large buck he shot with his bow last year in the Willard area.
Lifelong hunter Arlie Risner, 58, believes he has nothing to be ashamed of.
He says he pleaded no contest to a charge of hunting without permission because his lawyer convinced him it was an inexpensive way to take care of a citation from the Division of Wildlife.
He paid a fine of more than $300, but figured that when a year’s probation expired, that would be it and he could get back to hunting and fishing.
Risner said he was stunned when he got a letter demanding $27,851.33 in restitution from the ODNR. He can’t hunt or fish in Ohio until he pays, and if he doesn’t cover the bill, he could face a collections lawsuit from the attorney general’s office.
“I’ve never been in trouble in my life,” Risner said. “I don’t think I’ve even done anything wrong.”
The hunting story
Risner’s deer hunting woes date back to Nov. 10, 2010, when he says he went bow hunting on property owned by his cousin, Marcella Handshoe, along Town Line Road No. 12 in Willard. He hit a large buck with his arrow.
“I hit it good,” Risner said.
He saw the deer leap away, losing the arrow sticking out of its neck.
The licensed hunter followed the buck’s blood trail to CSX Railroad property and found the animal where it had dropped. He tagged it, entering the proper information, and took it to officially check in at a Shelby hunting store.
On Nov. 14, a game warden showed up at Risner’s house, saying Risner had been turned in for hunting on railroad property. Risner said he tried to show the game warden where he’d hit the buck, but his cousin had cut the grass, removing the blood trail.
Handshoe said her cousin did nothing wrong.
“He was on my land and he had permission,” said Handshoe, who said she showed Division of Wildlife agents the trees where Risner took cover when he shot the deer. “I am so upset over this whole issue.”
“I know him as well as I do my brothers,” Handshoe said. “Arlie has always been an honest person. I have never heard anything bad about him.”
Arlie said he did what any hunter would do — follow the deer he wounded and harvest it.
The Division of Wildlife investigator who handled Risner’s case, however, said that there was evidence Risner broke the law.
Jeff Collingwood, wildlife investigator for the division’s office in Findlay, said he was sure of Risner’s guilt. If he wasn’t “100 percent certain,” he would not have sought charges, Collingwood said.
“There’s a fence that separates it,” Collingwood said of the property line.
He said officers found gouge marks from a tree stand on a tree on CSX property that the officer accused Risner of climbing, and found deer bait nearby, within bow shot of the tree stand.
Wildlife officers also found deer guts on railroad property and linked it to Risner’s deer using DNA. A blood trail was found on railroad property, but no blood trail could be seen on Handshoe’s property, Collingwood said.
Risner maintains that he didn’t know he’d set foot on CSX property and said there’s no way he could have scaled the tree Collingwood said he did. Why? Because he’d recently had surgery for colon cancer and there’s no way for him to climb a tree like the one that had marks in it.
Clearly, Risner said, someone else had scaled that tree and put the bait out.
Ken Fitz, law enforcement program administrator for the Division of Wildlife, said it’s irrelevant under the law where Risner shot the deer. If he claimed it on property where he didn’t have permission to hunt, it’s still a violation of the law.
Risner pleaded no contest — technically not an admission of guilt — on Feb. 23 and paid his court fine. The ODNR confiscated both the antlers and the meat.
Deputy Steve Hammersmith, a 26-year veteran of the Erie County Sheriff’s office, lived next to Risner for about 10 years.
Hammersmith said he knows nothing about Risner’s legal problems and said it wouldn’t be proper for him to get involved, but said Risner was an “ideal neighbor.”
“He was the type of individual who did things without asking,” Hammersmith said. “I never encountered him being a bad individual.”
Risner said he does not believe he did anything wrong and doesn’t consider himself a poacher. He doesn’t like poachers, he said, and would never be one.
“I’m probably never going to hunt again,” he said. “It’s just been a really bad experience for me.”
There’s no other record of wildlife violations by Risner.
Fitz confirms that the 2010 charge is the only one in ODNR’s records.
Collingwood worked for 10 years as a wildlife officer in Huron County and has been an investigator for two years. He said that in those 12 years, he never had any dealings with Risner. If there had been an arrest or complaints about Risner, “I would have known about it,” he said.
Collingwood is the Monroeville High School assistant football coach who was fired from his coaching job last month because he failed to report a student violation of the athletic code of conduct.
Risner thought his case was over, but at the end of April, he got a registered letter from ODNR asking for more than $27,000 in restitution.
Surprised, Risner called up his lawyer, Neil McKown of Shelby, who Risner says didn’t realize his client would be facing the additional fine. McKown did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Fitz remembers the restitution letter.
“I wrote the letter,” he said.
Fitz explained that the department had no leeway in setting the restitution, but had to follow guidelines in a 2007 state law, Ohio Revised Code 1531.201, that sets high restitution for valuable animals. Before the new law, restitution for deer was $400 an animal.
The new law recognizes that killing a large buck can be lucrative. Risner’s unusually large animal therefore drew the $27,851.33 restitution, the largest levied since the new law. The next-largest so far is $23,816.
Collingwood said under the scoring system used for deer, the antlers for Risner’s buck measured 228 inches.
“We rarely see anything higher than 160,” he said. More than 200 is considered world class, he said.
A hunter landing a buck that large can make thousands of dollars selling it to a store such as Bass Pro Shop, and could make money to endorse the bow or clothes or other tools he used to land it.
Risner said he had no interest in the antlers or trophy animals in general. He said he simply hunted for the meat, which is particularly good for his digestion following his bout with cancer.
State officials have taken no action yet to collect Risner’s restitution. At some point, they could ask the attorney general to collect it, Fitz said. That’s the step where Risner could attempt to make some kind of deal.
Risner said he can’t afford the $27,000 fine, especially after all of his expensive medical bills. He instead plans to fight the ODNR, which he claims has too much power.
The deer law
State records show that the bill that hiked the restitution fees, Ohio House Bill, was authored by Bob Latta, then a state lawmaker and now a Congressman who represents Huron County.
The bill passed the House 96-0 and the Senate 29-1 before it became law.
Before final passage, Latta proposed amendments to the bill that were approved 94-2. Only former state Rep. Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island, and Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, voted no.
Redfern and Wachtmann did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Latta’s spokeswoman, Izzy Santa, said the intent of the law was to set up penalties to prevent poaching.
“He believed and he still believes he did not want illegal poaching,” she said. “The fees were there to prevent that behavior.”
Latta had no comment on the size of Risner’s restitution, she said.
State Rep. Dennis Murray Jr., D-Sandusky, said he’s not an expert on deer hunting but Risner’s big restitution sounds like an unintended result of the new law.
“I can’t imagine that the buck is worth $27,000,” he said.
Murray said it’s also “somewhat bothersome” Risner was convicted of anything — assuming Risner’s account is correct.
“If you’re just following the animal and it lays down where it lays down, what else are you supposed to do?” he said.