The hunters came from at least 21 states to the deep-cut canyons and Sand Hills of Nebraska to bag trophies for their walls back home.
More than 100 people from states like New York, Wisconsin, Virginia and Utah paid $2,500 to $7,000 to take aim at big bucks, pronghorn antelopes and turkeys, all with the help of Hidden Hills Outfitters near Broken Bow.
But they weren’t really big game hunters. They were poachers — using bait, spotlights at night and other illegal tactics to guarantee their success.
And now many of them have been convicted of federal crimes or other violations after a major federal and state investigation.
So far, 30 people have pleaded guilty, $570,453 in fines and restitution have been assessed, and 53 years’ worth of hunting and fishing permits have been forfeited. Other cases are still working their way through the system.
Jacob Hueftle, 30, the co-owner and chief operator of Hidden Hills Outfitters, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison by U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon earlier this month. He was also ordered to pay $214,375 in restitution, jointly with his company, to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
As part of his plea agreement, Hueftle won’t be able to hunt, trap or engage in any related business for 15 years once he gets out of prison.
The case is the largest such bust in Nebraska history, according to Dick Turpin, the 83-year-old retired chief game warden at Game and Parks.
“All the guys hunting and fishing in this state ought to write (the judge) a letter thanking him,” Turpin said. “Somebody is sticking up for our interests.”
The case started with a tip that investigators won’t divulge and was undertaken jointly by agents with Game and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over about five years, investigators found, Hidden Hills Outfitters and its clients engaged in hunting practices that were illegal under either Nebraska or federal law.
They shot animals that had been lured to them with bait and whose movements had been carefully scrutinized via trail cameras.
Some used rifles during archery season. Others hunted at night and with spotlights. Or lacked a permit. Or shot animals from the road. Or lied about who killed their animal and how it was killed.
To hide their actions from others, hunters sometimes put noise suppressors on their guns.
And they sent their ill-gotten gains home, across state lines.
At least 97 game animals were illegally killed: 30 white-tailed deer, 34 mule deer, six pronghorn antelope and 27 turkeys.
Ethical hunters, frustrated by poaching in Nebraska, are celebrating the case. They say they aren’t aware of poaching at this scale among other operations in the state, but they say illegal hunting has been penalized too lightly.
“It’s outstanding that they finally put some teeth in these violations and sentenced someone to something meaningful, rather than a fine,” said Tom Lanz, a lifelong hunter who has been active in Nebraska hunting organizations.
“We manage wildlife for the benefit of everybody,” he said. “That wildlife has a value to society. When they steal that, they steal from all of us. It’s just offensive.”
In addition to being illegal, some of the killing was wanton.
The heads were cut off of some animals, with the meat left to rot. And some hunters took part in target practice using birds. An unknown number of migratory nongame birds such as hawks and falcons were illegally killed, typically while perched on fence lines or power lines, according to court records.
Hidden Hills’ plea agreement says “J.H.” personally killed at least 100 nongame birds.
Reached by phone, Hueftle said he would provide a statement but did not follow through.
In 2012, Hueftle had been convicted of violating federal hunting law and sentenced to probation for five years.
Later that year, he began operating Hidden Hills, and in 2013, he and others created a limited liability corporation for the business. Opening an outfitting business was legal under his probation, according to court documents, but he was banned from using weapons or killing animals himself — probation restrictions that he violated.
In the current case, the court found Hueftle and Hidden Hills Outfitters guilty of violating two federal laws: the Lacey Act, which prohibits trafficking in illegal game, and the Migratory Bird Act, which prohibits killing hawks, falcons and other nongame migratory birds.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska won’t comment on whether the investigation continues or how many others will be prosecuted.
Court documents say Hueftle and unindicted co-conspirators, including employees and associates, collaborated on the scheme from 2013 through at least November 2017.
According to court records, Hidden Hills drummed up business online and at out-of-state events, including the Great American Outdoor Show, a nine-day event in Pennsylvania that bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor show. Through these efforts, and some word-of-mouth, Hidden Hills attracted at least 118 clients, almost all of them from outside Nebraska.
For at least one client, it was about more than trophy mounts.
Big game archery hunter and television personality Rod Owen brought his commercial video equipment to hunts in Nebraska from 2015 to 2017.
Owen has been featured in Field & Stream and on the Outdoor Channel and was a cast member for the popular Drury Outdoors media company.
While working as a contract employee for Drury, he participated in a celebrity reality hunting show called “Dream Season.” He was paired with professional bull rider J.W. “Ironman” Hart.
Owen, of Blue Springs, Missouri, touted his Nebraska hunts on Drury’s “100% Wild Podcast.”
“You got to use all your different skills when you get out there,” he said of the Nebraska Sand Hills. “You got to play to win.”
In reality, Owen knew that the animals were lured into range with bait — he even helped place some of the bait.
And while he’s gained fame for his prowess with a bow and arrow, two animals that he wounded with an arrow were ultimately killed with a rifle.
He fired the shot that killed a wounded white-tailed deer, and a guide delivered the fatal shot to a mule deer.
In both instances, he misrepresented the hunt in video submitted to Drury Outdoors, according to court records.
Owen made about $810 from Drury for one video and $3,067 on another. In exchange for being promoted in the video, Hidden Hills halved the fee it charged Owen.
Owen has been ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution.
In a statement, Drury Outdoors said the company cooperated with the investigation and parted ways with Owen after learning of the violations.
According to court documents and Owen’s description on “100% Wild,” Hidden Hills operated across a large reach of Nebraska. Its network of hunting sites spanned at least eight Nebraska counties: Custer, Blaine, Valley, Sherman, Logan, Frontier, Keith and Morrill. According to Owen, the outfitter had access to about 200,000 acres through leases and other arrangements.
At least 68 sites were baited to attract turkey and big game.
Indeed, Hueftle acknowledged in his plea that from 2013 to 2017, he and others set out 115,378 pounds of deer bait or its components. As part of his operations, Hueftle had set up two companies to make bait that he dubbed PrimeTine and Hard Rack Candy.
For white-tailed deer hunts, about 80% of clients using a bow and arrow and about 50% of those using a rifle did so near a bait site, Hueftle said in his plea agreement. Under Nebraska law, it is illegal to hunt within 200 yards of bait.
The company also illegally allowed the hunting of mule deer in an area set aside for conservation of the species.
In addition, it allowed the use of altered hunting permits, purchasing a permit after an animal was killed and taking turkey in excess of limits.
Among the company’s clients, a Wisconsin auto dealer stands out for his eagerness to participate.
Duane S. Mulvaine of Fox Lake provided Hidden Hills with vehicles and guns and served as a guide, according to his plea.
Mulvaine hunted in Nebraska with Hueftle from 2012 through 2017 and killed at least nine animals illegally: three white-tailed deer, three mule deer and three pronghorn antelope.
In one instance, he killed a white-tailed deer at night using a spotlight and semiautomatic rifle equipped with a suppressor. On top of that, it was archery season, not rifle season, and he shot the animal from a vehicle along a roadway (also illegal) in Sherman County.
Similarly, he killed a mule deer in Custer County while seated in a vehicle on a roadway with a .223-caliber bolt-action rifle equipped with a suppressor (because it was archery season).
In another instance, according to his plea, he and other man loaded his illegally killed pronghorn antelope onto an all-terrain vehicle to take to a location that would provide a better backdrop for a trophy photo.
Mulvaine also provided weapons he knew would be used illegally. Court documents describe the weapons as: a Howa Model I 500 .223-caliber bolt-action rifle with a Mack Brothers suppressor, a Savage M-25 .17-caliber Hornet bolt-action rifle with a SilencerCo suppressor, a Hogan Model H223 multi-caliber semiautomatic rifle, and a Browning BAR .243-caliber semiautomatic rifle.
The car dealer brought family members to Nebraska to hunt and provided guide services to them.
As part of his sentencing, he was forced to give up 13 wildlife trophy mounts unlawfully killed in Nebraska: five mule deer, three white-tailed deer, three pronghorn antelope, a turkey and a badger. He also forfeited four scoped rifles, three suppressors, a compound bow and a crossbow.
He has also been ordered to pay $95,000 in restitution and fines.
Both Mulvaine and Owen declined to comment.
Mulvaine was 40 years old when he was sentenced in August; Owen was 57 when he was sentenced last year. Neither will be allowed to hunt or fish during their five-year probations.
Twenty other people were ticketed through what’s known as the Central Violations Bureau, which is less serious than U.S. District Court. It’s not clear from court documents whether any of those people lost their hunting privileges.
The Nebraska hunting community wants penalties for poaching to be even stiffer, said longtime hunter and hunting advocate Janice Spicha.
“The ethical hunters of this state want things like this stopped and stopped for good,” she said. “If you knowingly participate in illegal hunting activities, then you shouldn’t be able to hunt again. Ever.”