– At 3 a.m. last Oct. 8, as a lunar eclipse was just beginning to show itself, two Department of Natural Resources conservation officers planted an electronic tracking device on a white 2005 Chevrolet Silverado pickup parked in the driveway of a home in this west-central Minnesota town.

One officer attached the gadget to the truck while the other stood lookout for lights that might come on in the house, indicating the officers' presence had been detected.

But there were no lights, and soon both men hiked to their vehicle, which they had parked nearby.

Temperature that night was in the low 40s. There was no wind. Cloudy the previous day, the sky had cleared somewhat, and now, as the officers drove away, Dawson, with its 1,500 residents, was quiet.

Thus unfolded the concluding chapter of a DNR deer poaching investigation that began in 2009, when conservation officer Ed Picht was first given information alleging that Joshua Dwight Liebl, 37, then of rural Dawson, was killing deer illegally, at night.

In Minnesota, shining a spotlight or a vehicle's headlights into a field is illegal if a gun or bow is in the vehicle. If no firearms or bows are present, shining is allowed only for two hours after sunset.

The nearly 5-year-long DNR investigation of Liebl, which included both aerial surveillance of Liebl's home and conservation officers staking out likely poaching spots for long hours at night, climaxed on Oct. 21 of last year, less than two weeks after the tracking device was placed on Liebl's truck.

That evening, conservation officers and Lac qui Parle County sheriff's deputies stopped Liebl and a friend in Liebl's pickup about 8 p.m. In the back of the truck was a whitetail buck that officers subsequently would determine was felled by a rifle bullet.

At the time, only archery hunting for deer was allowed, and when firearms deer season opened a few weeks later, only shotgun hunting for deer was allowed in the area.

While Liebl was being stopped, another team of officers arrived at his home with a search warrant. There, according to a DNR investigative report, Danielle Coffman, 37, told the officers she occasionally had "driven around'' with Liebl at night shooting skunks. But she said she didn't know much about his hunting. She also said Liebl had mounted only one trophy deer since 2011.

Searching the house, officers found multiple buck head-and-shoulder mounts, as well as many free-standing whitetail racks, representing, the officers said, a total of 37 dead deer.

The number of heads and racks the officers found seemed excessive, they believed, given that Liebl had registered only four deer between 2004 and 2013, all adult males.

Liebl and/or his former wife (the couple divorced in 2012) had together purchased 33 deer licenses and five duplicate deer licenses between 2000 and 2014, according to a DNR investigative report.

Officers also searched a garage freezer at Liebl's home, finding a trout, a turkey, a goose, a raccoon, multiple ducks, two sage grouse in a bag and an intact piebald white-tailed fawn.

The fawn weighed about 74 pounds, indicating it had been killed that fall, officers said. A subsequent carcass examination showed it had been killed by a rifle bullet.

No venison was found in the house or the garage.

Liebl's pickup, along with the mounts and racks, freezer contents and the freshly killed buck were seized by the conservation officers.

Thirty-seven guns also were confiscated.

Liebl could not be reached for comment. Relatives of his have said each of the confiscated deer was killed legally, noting he hunts in other states as well as Minnesota, and that ultimately a court will order them returned to him.

A relative of Liebl's also has said that when he was cited in South Dakota for shining — Dawson is only 19 miles from the South Dakota border — he was looking for raccoons, not deer.

Liebl's first court appearance is Feb. 17. His attorney, Bill Peterson of Bloomington, declined to comment or give a contact for Liebl, saying he hadn't had time to fully review the case.

Complaints begin in 2009

On Nov. 16, 2009, Wayne Erickson, a farmer who lives about 10 miles from Dawson, called Picht, the conservation officer, to say he thought Joshua Liebl had killed a buck illegally on his property.

Erickson, 63, born and raised in the area, owns 600 acres of land, most of it in corn and soybeans, some of it excellent deer and pheasant habitat.

Erickson's complaints were among a handful of similar allegations Picht received about Liebl beginning in 2009, according to a DNR investigative report.

Picht subsequently called Liebl, asking to talk to him. Initially Liebl agreed, but later he backed out.

Fast forward.

Last September, South Dakota conservation officer Adam Behnke called Picht to report he had returned two rifles to Liebl, a .22 and a .243, that Behnke had confiscated when he cited Liebl for shining in South Dakota on Nov. 10, 2013.

Behnke reiterated that Liebl was prohibited from hunting in South Dakota and Minnesota, among other states, until December 2014.

Checking the Minnesota DNR database, Picht found that Liebl had purchased a Minnesota archery deer license on Sept. 17, 2014.

Together with the complaints the DNR had received about Liebl over the years, the perceived license violation prompted Picht to seek, and obtain, a warrant allowing the DNR to attach the mobile tracking device to Liebl's truck.

Such devices, DNR officials say, are used only when resources are at imminent risk or when other enforcement tools and methods prove ineffective.

The night of Oct. 8 last year, and also Oct. 15, conservation officers electronically tracked Liebl's vehicle to locations where they believed he shined his truck headlights into fields.

At each location, Picht found tire tracks on gravel roads indicating a vehicle had stopped, backed up and turned as if to point its headlights into a "combined field, wetland or alfalfa field,'' Picht wrote in a report.

Picht investigated three more locations on Oct. 20, where the tracking device showed Liebl's truck had stopped between 12:45 a.m. and 2:45 a.m.

At one site, in Manfred Township, Picht found tire tracks consistent with those he had previously documented.

At that location, Picht followed what appeared to be drag marks leading into an alfalfa field. About 100 yards from the road, he found three deer beds, one with a pool of blood in it.

The same day, Picht applied to a judge for a warrant to search Liebl's home, while Picht's boss, Lt. Gary Nordseth of Marshall, alerted other southwest Minnesota conservation officers.

Six of those officers and two sheriff's deputies met for a briefing at 7:15 p.m. on Oct. 21, and in the hours thereafter, Liebl's truck was stopped and his home searched.

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.

A follow-up investigation of cellphones and other evidence seized from Leibl by the officers also brought hunting-related charges against three other people.

A judge ultimately will decide whether the DNR can keep and auction Liebl's truck, guns, deer heads and mounts, with proceeds going to the state's Game and Fish Fund.

Meanwhile, wildlife managers in that part of the state say the area has relatively little deer habitat.

Its estimated whitetail population ranges from two to four deer per square mile.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com