DNR: Domestic violence investigation leads to deer poaching case

Van Buren County

Conservation Officers Tyler Cole, left, and Matt Page with eight deer heads that were suspected to have been poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. Page located a ninth deer that Ernst took, two days later. Ernst is a convicted felon who is believed to have driven around fields at night, shining and shooting deer. (courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

DECATUR, Mich. (WOOD) — A domestic violence investigation turned into 15 deer poaching charges for a Decatur man.

On Oct. 17, Michigan State Police were investigating a domestic violence complaint when they saw several dead deer in a barn and tipped off two conservation officers about the deer, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said in a Thursday release.

Authorities say eight illegal bucks — five 10-pointers and three eight-pointers — were found in the barn and seized.

The homeowner told the conservation officers that 33-year-old Justin Ernst, a convicted felon who had not yet been located by MSP, was believed to be under the influence of meth.

The DNR officers were also told Ernst would often stay out all night, and the next morning a new buck would be in the barn.

The conservation officers determined the illegal trophy deer belonged Ernst. They suspect Ernst would drive his truck through fields, shining and shooting deer.

Ernst was arrested on Oct. 18 on a domestic violence charge, the DNR says.

A tipster told the DNR another buck was in the barn. An officer found a nine-point buck that seemed to have been shot within the past two days. 

The two DNR officers interviewed Ernst at the jail, who said he did not have a connection to the deer, and said he couldn’t hunt because his hunting license was revoked.

On Oct. 20, multiple DNR officers executed a search warrant and found multiple weapons, including a crossbow, in Ernst’s vehicle.

An undated booking photo of Justin Ernst. (courtesy Michigan Department of Corrections)

Ernst faces up to a $59,500 in reimbursement to the state and 15 DNR charges, including two felony firearm violations, a count of hunting with a revoked hunting license and nine counts of taking game illegally, the DNR says. He was arraigned on Nov. 9.

“It’s a shame that this criminal ruined the chance for ethical, legal hunters to have their opportunity to take one of these trophy deer,” Lt. Gerald Thayer of the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division said in the release. “Not only did this felon steal from the natural resource, he also damaged agriculture crops, and has been doing so for some time. The financial penalty is the minimum he should serve.”

Officials say Ernst has a prior 2018 DNR conviction for illegally taking or possessing white-tailed deer. He also has previous convictions of possession of meth, third-degree fleeing a police officer and third offense operating a vehicle while under the influence, online state prison records show.

He is out on bond and is scheduled to reappear in court on Dec. 20, the DNR says.

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