How California snared 2 elite hunters posting 'once a lifetime' kills on social media
Joe Frater and Chris Stone were on their way to social media stardom in the elite world of trophy deer hunting.
The two law enforcement officers — Stone is an investigator for the Amador County district attorney; Frater is a corrections officer at a local prison — regularly showed off their trophies from just a few years of hunting with bows and arrows in the Sierra foothills of Northern California.
They posed with impressive, mature bucks that they somehow managed to pull from a place known mostly for its scrawny deer with tiny racks. The men appeared on hunting websites, podcasts and YouTube videos, and they had sponsorships with companies that sell hunting equipment.
Along the way, California wildlife officers were beginning to grow skeptical of the steady feed of social media posts featuring Frater and Stone. Most of their kills looked like the bruisers that celebrity hunters brag about on hunting shows — that is, extraordinary.
What unfolded next over five months in 2019 could be an episode of "CSI," as wardens undertook a complex operation with covert stakeouts, DNA evidence, aerial surveillance and vehicle tracking devices — tactics that the men's attorneys say went too far in upholding California's stringent and complex hunting rules.
From the beginning, investigators thought the two archery hunters may have been cheating. They suspected Frater and Stone had lured in the deer using bait, a practice that's considered unsporting. It's also illegal in California.
"The caliber/type of deer is very rare for a legal CA hunter to harvest, especially with only using archery equipment," Game Warden David Moskat wrote in a 2019 search warrant. "I have known many archery and rifle hunters who would be satisfied to harvest even one of this caliber of buck in a lifetime of legal hunting in California."
In California — and elsewhere around the country — breaking the hunting rules can be a criminal offense. Violators can face misdemeanor charges for breaking even the most technical rules in a thick rule book dedicated to hunting and wildlife protection.
In 2010, one of the biggest names in the hunting world, rock musician Ted Nugent, showed himself hunting over bait as he killed a small "spike" buck on an episode of his "Spirit of the Wild" hunting program on the Outdoor Channel.
Nugent — who often hunts in Texas, where using bait is legal — pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors: illegally baiting a deer, and failing to have a hunting permit signed by a government official after a kill.
To figure out the methods used by Frater and Stone, a team of officers went on their own hunt, using the same tactics as any elite law enforcement agency would.
They used a surveillance plane to trail the men from overhead. They set out motion-activated cameras. They put tracking devices on their pickups. They took samples from the guts left behind from kills and swabbed the bed of Frater's pickup for deer blood and hair for DNA evidence. They combed through their text messages and tallied who they called and the minutes they were on the phone.
After weeks of stakeouts both day and night, they raided the two men's homes, going room to room, rifling through drawers, freezers and closets, seizing deer-head trophies, archery equipment, cell phones, frozen venison, computers, trail camera memory cards and taxidermy and butcher receipts.
At Frater's home, they seized salt licks, mineral blocks and bags of feed, the sorts of bait used to lure in deer.
When the investigation was complete, the wardens said they found enough evidence the men were hunting deer using bait. Among several other violations: failure to report harvested deer as required by law, intentionally misrepresenting the location of their kills, and trespassing.
Because of a recently enacted state law designed to punish poachers specifically targeting trophy-class deer, Stone and Frater faced special sentencing enhancements that included up to a year in jail and up to $40,000 in fines.
In the end, the California Attorney General's Office allowed the men to sign plea bargains that included no jail time and fines nowhere near the maximum the law allows. (The state agency prosecuted the case in Amador County Superior Court, given that Stone worked for the local district attorney.)
Stone's and Frater's attorneys argue the Attorney General's Office knew the state's case was overblown, which is why the trophy enhancement was never filed. They argue that the two men didn't deliberately intend to violate the state's strict prohibition on hunting deer using bait.
As for the other allegations, John Holbus, Stone's Sacramento attorney, said they were for technical and "so meritless that the Attorney General's office declined to even file them."