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BOULDER - After a five-day trial, a jury here on Wednesday acquitted a Whitehall taxidermist of buying an illegally killed bighorn ram from an undercover state game warden.

Jurors in about two hours found that John Lewton was innocent of buying the ram, which was shot by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden during a September 2008 sting investigation of Lewton for illegal outfitting. Lewton shook the hand of Jack Morris, a Whitehall lawyer representing him, as Judge Loren Tucker read the jury's decision in Boulder District Court.

"The verdict speaks for itself," Morris said.

A gag order requested by the state remains in effect in the case, and because charges are pending against Lewton in two other counties Morris said he could not comment further.

***

The case arose from an undercover operation that FWP undertook. The department had received several complaints that Lewton, a filmmaker, had for years been illegally outfitting clients on bighorn hunts in the Missouri River Breaks country east of Great Falls.

During the operation, game warden Justin Gibson shot a large bighorn ram after purposely missing it three times. Weeks later, Lewton bought the ram from Gibson for $5,000 at Lewton's Whitehall shop, Cape Horn Taxidermy.

The state alleged the purchase was illegal because Lewton knew the ram was killed illegally. It presented evidence that Lewton and his assistants, Blake Trangmoe and James Reed, used two-way radios to lead Gibson and another undercover agent to the ram, illegally trespassed across private land and illegally went off road with all-terrain vehicles.

But in his closing arguments, Morris pressed the defense he used all week - that the state was in the wrong for killing the ram. He worked to cast doubt in jurors' minds about whether any crimes applied to Lewton because it was Gibson who had the tag. State officials had issued the tag to Gibson under an alias as part of the operation.

Morris told jurors if they convicted Lewton, they would set a precedent by which they could be charged if accompanying a family member who broke a game law. And he said FWP was trying to cover up its botched investigation after Gibson killed the trophy-quality ram.

"When things don't look good, you point the finger at guys like John Lewton," Morris said. "You have to find in order to convict John Lewton that he was the hunter, and he wasn't."

Morris said Gibson planted one of the radios that was recovered a week later in the effort to prove the devices were used. Morris said Lewton is disliked by licensed outfitters because he takes people out hunting for free to videotape them, which costs the outfitters money.

But Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Jenks urged jurors to look at the facts about all the illegal actions she said Lewton took while leading the hunt. She said Lewton, Trangmoe and Reed were clearly hunting that weekend when they helped chase the ram.

"The term hunt includes pursuing the sheep, it includes chasing the sheep," she said. "Mr. Lewton was right there telling Mr. Gibson what to do, where to hunt, which ram to shoot, when to shoot."

Jenks said that's why Lewton was seen on tape coaching Gibson not to tell anyone about the radio use or crossing private land. She said that demonstrated that he purposely and knowingly broke the law.

"He's telling Mr. Gibson what to say when he checks that ram because he knows there's a problem with this hunt," Jenks said.

Jenks did not comment after the verdict, saying the state still has two cases pending against Lewton in Blaine and Chouteau counties, including charges of illegal outfitting, trespassing and illegal possession of a game animal.

***

Bob Page, jury foreman, said the 11-man, one-woman jury listened to Tucker's instructions carefully and applied them during two hours of deliberations. He did not go into details about what evidence led them to the unanimous not guilty verdict.

"We considered everything presented, and it was a lively discussion," he said. "Reasonable doubt was a key element in our determination."

Jim Kropp, FWP chief of law enforcement, said before the verdict was announced that undercover investigations are part of the state doing its job to shut down illegal wildlife activity. He said officials knew there was a chance a game warden would have to shoot a ram in the case, as sometimes happens in wildlife investigations of repeat offenders.

"It's not about courtroom theatrics, it's not about accusing our officers of lying or planting evidence," he said. "This investigation focuses on the protection of our treasured resources for the future."

Reporter Nick Gevock can be reached at (406) 496-5512 or at nick.gevock@mtstandard.com.

 

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