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A Washington man sentenced in Gallatin County District Court Tuesday afternoon for poaching five antelope and two whitetail deer was part of a larger illegal hunt involving five people and dozens of antelope, deer, elk and game birds.

Appearing before Judge Holly Brown, Jeffrey C. Fritz, 42, pleaded guilty to seven misdemeanor charges of illegal possession of game animals.

Brown, abiding by a plea bargain struck between federal investigators, Deputy County Attorney Todd Whipple and defense attorney Ryan Jackson, sentenced Fritz to three and a half years probation and prohibited him from hunting or trapping for 10 years.

The plea agreement reduced Fritz's original felony charges to misdemeanors in exchange for his cooperation in a federal investigation into the poaching scheme.

Fritz was also previously convicted in Madison and Powder River counties on five other 2007 misdemeanor poaching charges involving three deer, one bull elk and illegal transfer of a hunting license, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigator Chad Murphy said after the hearing.

Fritz was the fourth person involved in the scheme to plead guilty to illegal hunting charges stemming back to 2004.

Michael W. Duby, 62, of Mesa, Ariz., and one of Fritz's hunting buddies, pleaded guilty last month to two misdemeanor poaching charges and was sentenced to one year probation.

Robert and Tammy Hosfield, who allowed Fritz, Duby and Duby's son, Michael P. Duby, to hunt on their ranch in Bridger Canyon, pleaded guilty in 2009 to letting the out-of-state men unlawfully use their and their daughter's hunting licenses to take deer and antelope in 2006 and 2007.

The most heinous charges -- at least four felony poaching counts -- were filed against the younger Duby and are still pending.

According to Murphy's report, the undercover investigation was initiated in 2009 when Alaska Wildlife Trooper Aaron Frenzel and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Sam Friberg went fishing on the younger Duby's charter boat.

On the boat, the agents noticed an album of photographs of Duby and the other men posing with game animals including elk and mule deer. Duby's guide service website also featured a photo of the younger Duby posing with one of his catches captioned, "Captain Mike Duby with his first antelope buck."

It took Murphy about a month to pinpoint the mountain range in the photos -- the northern Bridger Mountains, he said after Fritz's hearing Tuesday.

In court Tuesday, Fritz admitted to the seven charges against him.

"We were hunting at the Hosfield's ranch with the Dubys and they told us we could shoot what we wanted and we could use their landowner tags," he told Brown. "We flock shot and a few more went down than were supposed to."

When Brown asked him why he was pleading guilty, Fritz said, "I basically just want this to be over."

As he began to elaborate saying he had a 2-year-old son and a wife, Brown cut him off saying he sounded like he wasn't taking responsibility for the crimes.

"I am definitely guilty," he said. "I shot the animals. We knew it was wrong."

In pronouncing his sentence, which included payment of fines and fees totaling more than $6,000, Brown admonished Fritz severely.

"Hunting is a privilege," she said. "You've not only abused that privilege, you've flaunted it. You were callous and cavalier about what you were doing. It's not a video game. These are real. These are beautiful creatures.

"I hope for your sake Mr. Fritz that this is not something you are going to teach your son," she added. "I hope you teach him to respect the gifts that we have. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior."

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630. Read her blog at jhausen.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @bozemancrime.

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