Big bucks are what hunters’ dreams are made of, but can such dreams once attained really be worth stealing? A rise in the value of taxidermy has made some thieves think so. A few burglars have even broken into homes, tiptoed right past big-screen TVs and snuck back out toting shoulder mounts. Not so very long ago Jeff Foxworthy might have joked, “If you’re more worried about your deer heads being stolen than your credit cards … you might be a redneck.” But over the last decade a couple of high-profile thefts of big deer have given the worry some validity.
Consider the theft of 17 whitetail shoulder-mounts that made up the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) poachers’ “Wall of Shame.” In January 2011 thieves cut locks from a gate and stole the heads from trailers owned by the DNR. The deer racks had originally been seized from poachers. The DNR used them as an exhibit for outdoor shows to dissuade others from killing deer illegally. They never thought this collection designed to shame might be lifted.
Doug Bermel, executive director of Minnesota’s Turn in Poachers (TIP) hotline, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, said, “I can’t imagine what you would even do with these antlers. They’re easily traced. There are pictures of them that can be matched.”
Bermel and the DNR were being introduced to the dark side of the antler trade, where shady characters think they can buy and sell bragging rights.
Soon journalists were comparing the Wall of Shame heist to the 2004 theft of Brian Andrews’ non-typical monster whitetail. Andrews’ buck scored 2531/8 net Boone and Crockett Club points and at the time was Iowa’s non-typical bow record. Andrews was then just 16 years old. His kill got a lot of media attention. But then, sometime between 8 and 10 p.m. on June 18, 2004, Andrews’ buck was stolen from his family’s home. Despite rewards offered by Bass Pro Shops and the Andrews family, the buck has never been recovered. Maybe it’s now locked in a dank basement “trophy room” where some lowlife looks at it now and then while whispering to himself: “This buck should have been mine.” It’s hard to say, but wherever it is, the buck is too well known to be sold or viewed publicly.
Finding Stolen Bucks
The thefts have led taxidermy.net to create a forum for people to share photos and descriptions of stolen bucks. The National Taxidermists Association also shows photos of stolen taxidermy in hopes someone will call in a tip.
The Boone and Crockett Club (B&C), which has had to throw poached trophies out of its records, also helps find lost trophies. On its “Lost or Stolen Trophy” page on boone-crockett.org, the B&C runs photos of stolen trophies with the hunters’ contact information.
Justin Spring, assistant director of B&C’s records division, says, “Most stolen bucks are never recovered. We police our records carefully. Any buck submitted to us goes through an investigation. There are antler collectors out there who will pay a lot for big antlers, but most of those guys are very careful buyers who know what they’re buying. It’s hard to say where those few stolen bucks go.”
Other than posting a buck’s photo on those websites, anyone who has taxidermy taken would also be wise to monitor ebay.com, deerantlerstore.com, mountsforsale.com and other websites where at any time people are bidding on thousands of antlers and deer heads. The vast majority of trophies bought and sold on such sites are likely legit, but the police don’t typically have the time and resources to monitor websites and antler auctions.
One reason many cases aren’t solved is the antlers likely never make it to an auction, website or taxidermist. Some thieves never intend to sell. They’re stealing for bragging rights.
This is what likely happened in December 2011 in Dummerston, Vt., when someone took an 8-point buck from a hunter’s yard. Timothy Forrett hung his buck from a tree. He said he partly did this because it was too big to fit in his garage but also because he wanted to show it off. Someone simply backed a pickup truck onto Forrett’s lawn, cut the rope the deer was hanging on and drove away.
There was a happier outcome when a man stole a 10-point buck from a meat processor in Indiana in December 2011. The Rushville Republican reported that Calvin L. Ballenger, a resident of New Castle, Ind., was charged with stealing the buck. A conservation officer investigated and found the buck at another Indiana meat processor. Photos from the hunter confirmed it was the same buck.
Other cases have involved penned deer. A whitetail with 238 inches of antler named “Pretty Boy” was shot with two arrows and dragged out of an enclosure in Oklahoma in November 2008. Mike Chain, an Oklahoma City breeder, had the buck on loan from another breeder. Chain was hoping the buck would breed with some of his does. Straws of semen from Pretty Boy were then fetching $1,500 apiece. A hunter later tried to check Pretty Boy into a mandatory check station and was nabbed.
What Racks are Worth
The market value of record book-quality heads is determined by their uniqueness, whether they break a record and if there’s a good story behind them. For example, Bass Pro Shops bought The Lovstuen Buck—a buck killed by Tony Lovstuen in Iowa in 2003 that scores 3075/8 B&C—reportedly for more than $200,000. A Minnesota giant named “Big Mo” (short for “Big Monster”) killed in 1991 now has an estimated value around $30,000.
Larry Huffman, the founder of the Iowa Deer Classic and a noted and reputable antler collector, says a 140-inch typical or a 160-inch non-typical whitetail is worth only a few hundred dollars. A whitetail that will make the B&C book in either category might fetch $2,000 or more depending on the rack’s uniqueness and other factors. A truly huge deer, a record or near world record, could be worth $100,000 or more, but a thief would have a hard time getting that much for such a buck.
To safely move heads, antler thieves need connections to buyers who are into being that seedy dude in a secret trophy room. Such connections are what the villains behind the “Wall of Shame” heist didn’t have. They didn’t even have a lot of brains.
Weeks after the theft, the case was solved after Timothy Heidenreich, a Minnesota resident, was arrested for stealing a tomato from a cafeteria—yes, a tomato. Heidenreich was on parole so off he went to the county jail. Heidenreich had a phone call coming, so he called one of his accomplices, Terry Cotton, and told him to sell the heads and other stolen merchandise fast. Being a jail phone, the call was recorded.
Tips also came in on a hotline, so police got a search warrant and soon the heads and other goods were recovered. The mounts were not damaged and are once again being trucked around the state as a “Wall of Shame.” Only now they have everyone talking about antler thieves as much as poachers.