Two minutes before sunrise on opening day of the 2017 deer season, a pair of game wardens approached a deer stand on private property near Bear Lake in Freeborn County.

The enforcement division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had made it known before the statewide hunt that the agency would be cracking down on deer baiting. In the vicinity of Albert Lea, this included pre-hunt surveillance of area hunting lands by a DNR pilot.

The pilot’s report to local Conservation Officer Jeremy Henke included a sighting of corn piled near a stand not far from a township road. During predawn Nov. 4, Henke and his lieutenant, Jason Beckmann, parked their squads in a driveway at the location and proceeded toward a ladder stand positioned within easy range of a large, trough-style livestock feeder loaded with corn.

According to DNR photos taken at the scene, the feeder was elevated 2 feet off the ground and stationed in an unobstructed grassy lane lined with trees on either side. A trail camera with its lens pointed squarely at the feeder was fastened to an adjacent post. The DNR incident report estimated the feeder to be within 30 to 35 yards of the deer stand.

Before the two officers reached the stand, they saw an orange-clad hunter walking toward them. He was carrying a large-caliber handgun mounted with a scope.

“Hi, Jeremy,” the man said to Henke.

Henke previously worked for the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Department, and he recognized the deer baiting suspect as fellow officer Timothy Michael Bennett, still a deputy under Sheriff Kurt Freitag.

But the bond between the two officers didn’t spare Bennett from an arrest. While still at the scene, records state, Henke turned the investigation over to Lt. Beckmann to avoid potential conflicts. Beckmann confiscated Bennett’s sidearm — a camouflage-colored Savage Model 516 — and cited him for hunting deer with the aid or use of bait.

Now the case is being watched by law enforcement agencies on both sides. Bennett pleaded not guilty earlier this month and is positioned to fight the DNR’s charge, a misdemeanor. Freitag said his patrol sergeant will face certain job discipline if he pleads guilty to the charge or is found guilty.

“We’ll release what we can once there’s been a final disposition,’’ Freitag said. “It looks like aspects of the discipline would be public.”

Bennett declined to comment. His attorney, Robert Fowler, said the DNR will have to prove his client had knowledge that the feeder existed. Fowler said Bennett was hunting on a friend’s land for the first time and walked into the site under the cover of predawn darkness. He didn’t see the feeder until he quit hunting, Fowler said.

“If you don’t know there is a feeder, you can’t be guilty,’’ Fowler said. “They just don’t have the evidence.”

Fowler said he’s prepared to take the case to trial if it isn’t resolved. The case is being prosecuted by the Mower County Attorney’s Office at the request of the Freeborn County attorney. Scott Springer, the prosecutor, declined to comment.

Before last fall’s hunting season, the DNR said hunting over bait was the most common bust during the 2016 deer season. Nearly 200 citations were issued and another 56 hunters received warnings.

In an interview in October, DNR conservation officer Jeff Denz of Willmar told the Star Tribune that stopping people from baiting deer was an enforcement priority in 2017. He also acknowledged that the law is tough to enforce because it’s difficult to catch someone in the act. Bennett’s case could become an example of that enforcement challenge.

According to DNR reports in Bennett’s case, the sheriff’s deputy was quick to tell the game wardens that he had not fired a shot and removed himself from the deer stand “when he noticed the feeder was full of corn.”

In a later conversation near the DNR squad cars, Bennett repeated that he did not know the corn was there.

“It’s my fault,’’ Bennett was quoted as saying in one of the DNR reports. “I am sorry that I put you guys in this situation.”

The landowner who was Bennett’s friend later told one of the game wardens that he was aware Bennett would be hunting on his property near a feeder full of corn. He told the warden that he used the corn for “scouting purposes.’’ He said Bennett had called him before opening day and “asked where he could hunt to shoot a quick doe.”

The landowner “advised that it was his fault and he may have forgot to mention it [the corn feeder] to Bennett,” the DNR report said.

According to the district court docket, Bennett’s case is scheduled for a conference April 5.