About a year ago, on Oct. 8, 2014, two Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers planted an electronic tracking device on a white 2005 Chevrolet Silverado pickup in Dawson, Minn., in the western part of the state. The time was about 3 a.m.
As one officer attached the gadget, the other stood lookout for the owner of the pickup, or anyone else who might happen along. The temperature was in the low 40s, and when the tracking device had been affixed to the truck, the officers disappeared into the night, with Dawson, population about 1,500, still largely asleep.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 21, 2014, with the device sending signals to officers about the pickup’s whereabouts, the vehicle was stopped by conservation officers and Lac qui Parle County sheriff’s deputies.
In the back of the truck was a whitetail buck the DNR determined was killed by a rifle bullet.
At the time, only archery hunting for deer was allowed in Minnesota. And in that part of the state, when firearms deer season did open a couple of weeks later, only shotguns could be used by hunters, not rifles.
Driving the pickup was Joshua Dwight Liebl, 37, of rural Dawson.
While Liebl was being stopped, another team of officers arrived at his home with a search warrant. At the house, Danielle Coffman, 37, told officers she sometimes had “driven around” with Liebl at night shooting skunks. But she didn’t know much about his hunting, she said, adding he had mounted only one trophy buck since 2011.
In the house, officers found and confiscated the head-and-shoulder mounts, or racks, of 37 dead deer — this, even though according to DNR records, Liebl had registered only four deer, each adult males, between 2004 and 2013.
Officers also found in a garage freezer a trout, a turkey, a goose, a raccoon, multiple ducks, two sage grouse and an intact piebald white-tailed fawn. The fawn, officers said, weighed about 74 pounds, suggesting it had been killed that fall — by a rifle bullet.
Liebl’s truck, the deer mounts and racks, the fawn and the freezer contents were confiscated by the officers, and still are in possession of the DNR. Thirty-seven guns also were taken.
Thus concluded one of the longest deer poaching investigations in Minnesota history, the culmination, the DNR said, of a nearly five-year-long inquiry.
In addition to the tracking device that had been attached to Liebl’s truck — an infrequent investigative technique employed by DNR conservation officers — aerial surveillance of Liebl’s home had been conducted, and DNR officers had spent long nights staking out places they suspected deer were being shined and poached.
Booked that night and released, Liebl subsequently was charged with gross misdemeanor use of an artificial light to take deer, hunting during prohibited time, gross misdemeanor trespassing and two counts of failure to register deer.
Previously, on Nov. 10, 2013, Liebl had been cited for shining by a conservation officer in South Dakota. That bust made Liebl ineligible to purchase a Minnesota hunting license until December 2014. But, officers said, Liebl in fact bought a Minnesota archery license in September of last year.
Now more than a year later, how has the case been resolved?
It hasn’t. Liebl has entered no plea, and his next court hearing won’t occur until Feb. 19.
Here’s how that can happen:
• Liebl made his first court appearance on Feb. 17 of this year. He was released on his own recognizance, with conditions, among them that he not possess wildlife. He can fish, however.
• A subsequent settlement conference occurred April 15, at which an omnibus hearing was requested by Liebl’s attorney, Bill Peterson of Bloomington. That hearing was supposed to have been held last week, but was postponed due to a scheduling conflict.
• The omnibus hearing now is scheduled for Feb. 19. At the hearing, Peterson is expected to challenge the validity of the warrants allowing placement of the tracking device on Liebl’s vehicle and the search of his home.
Peterson said Thursday that talk of a plea by Liebl is premature pending review by a judge of the search warrants and perhaps other facets of the multi-agency investigation.
Liebl hasn’t commented, but relatives of his have said he’s not guilty. They said he was shining skunks in South Dakota, not deer, and that the mounts in his house were legally taken, some from other states.
The case led Gov. Mark Dayton in the last legislative session to urge lawmakers to toughen the state’s penalties in serious poaching cases — a request that was largely ignored.
A judge, meanwhile, ultimately will decide whether the DNR can keep and auction Liebl’s truck, guns, deer heads and mounts, with proceeds going to the DNR Game and Fish Fund.