This New Jersey hunter was floating on the clouds in early October 2005 after shooting an outstanding buck on opening day of the '05 New Jersey archery season. Then, his dream hunt turned into a nightmare after he was accused of shooting the deer illegally with a rifle.
It was a happy time for Donna, Armando and 4-year-old Victoria Pioppi when this photo was taken the day after Armando shot his 15-point "buck of a lifetime." Note the entrance wound in the buck's right ham, and the recovered arrow leaning across the deer.
It was the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 1, 2005, opening day of archery season in New Jersey. Armando Pioppi Jr. of Newfield and his good friend Carlo DeFeo met up with some 12 other hunters at the Piney Hollow Sportsman's Club in rural Piney Hollow. After the usual deer talk, the two hunters headed to their tree stands for the afternoon hunt.
Although Armando hunted regularly with a shotgun and muzzleloader, he had not done much bowhunting in about 15 years. However, at Carlo's urging Armando had borrowed a bow from Carlo and hunted with it briefly the year before. Now they were at it again. Carlo had bought a new bow and loaned his old one to Armando. The two friends had permission to hunt 70 acres owned by Armando's neighbor. They had high hopes as they climbed into their stands.
The sun had not yet dropped below the trees on the horizon when Armando spotted a tall, tight-racked buck at 70 yards. He strained to count points, but the brush obstructed his view as the deer steadily moved in his direction. It reached 25 yards and turned broadside. Armando counted at least 10 points, several of which were abnormal. This is the biggest buck I've ever seen in the woods, he thought as the deer progressed toward an opening in the dense cover.
Armando came to full draw with the Browning Mirage just as the buck stopped behind a patch of brush. The hunter froze at full draw. His arms slowly weakened. The buck eventually stepped cautiously toward an opening. With his target now fully exposed, Armando led the animal's slow pace and released. The deer exploded when the Easton 2514 aluminum arrow hit with a solid "whomp."
ARMANDO'S DREAM BUCK
The archer was not sure where the arrow had hit the deer. Had he led the buck far enough? Could he have made a bad shot? If I've wounded this magnificent animal, Armando promised, I'm giving up bowhunting for good this time! He exited the tree stand to inspect for blood.
Finding only a scant blood trail, Armando elected to get help. Carlo, too, had hit a deer, and when the hunters met back at the sportsman's club it was decided to track that deer first. With the help of two other friends, Chris Seeley and Anthony Mattia, the four hunters set off to look for Carlo's deer. After following a blood trail for 200 yards, the group decided to stop the search and come back the next morning. They didn't want to risk jumping the deer in the dark and possibly losing it.
The four hunters then went to look for Armando's buck. After following a spotty blood trail for 50 yards, the group found Armando's arrow in the trail. Blood covered the ground over the next 30 to 40 yards, and then Carlo yelled that he had found the deer!
The 125-grain three-bladed Thunder-head had punctured the animal's right ham and severed the femoral artery on the opposite side. Armando's friends were thrilled about his success. Anthony tried to give Armando a bear hug, but the elated hunter was still holding the arrow and he had to warn Anthony to be careful. Armando was in shock over killing the biggest buck of his career with a bow. The celebration continued as Armando tagged and gutted his trophy. Its 10-point frame carried split G-2s and three other abnormal points. This is one of the best days of my life! Armando thought.
A HAPPY OCCASION
While dragging the deer out of the woods, a call was made to several of the hunters back at the club, and Armando called his wife, Donna. He asked her to come down to the club and bring his kids so that the entire family could share in the moment. When Armando's group got out to the road, eight to 10 hunters were waiting to see his buck. They all congratulated Armando as the buck was loaded in a truck. Armando's wife and youngest daughter, Victoria, were waiting back at the club.
Donna's father had passed away on Oct. 1, 1996 (nine years to the day before Armando shot his buck). Armando had been very close to his father-in-law. Donna, now realizing the relevance of the date, told her husband, "Dad must have sent you this deer." Armando and Donna both broke down and cried in sadness and joy after acknowledging Donna's father.
After dozens of photos were taken, Armand and another friend, George Condo, took the deer to Ted's Taxidermy Shop to check it in. (Ted's Taxidermy is an official New Jersey Fish and Wildlife check station.)
"I told Ted that I would be back with the head and hide to have it mounted," Armando said. "I told him I wanted a three-quarter body mount, and he gave me a price of $800."
The deer was taken back to the club and hung in the cooler. Over the next three days, numerous people came by to see it. Armando asked Anthony (a skilled skinner) to skin the deer for him since he would need most of the skin for the three-quarter mount. When the cape and antlers were delivered to the taxidermist, most of the skin was attached to the cape, including the hindquarter section with the arrow hole.
Many more photos were taken -- even as the deer was being skinned. Armando even took several photos of the buck's bloody hams. All in all, he felt very fortunate to have recovered this New Jersey trophy whitetail after making such a marginal shot.
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
Two weeks later, Armando learned from friends that several game wardens had stopped by his house while he was away. "I had no idea what they wanted and figured they'd be back if they really needed to talk to me," Armando said.
On Dec. 19, more than two months after the buck was killed, game warden Wesley Kille and Lt. Mark Leonard went to Armando's home and told him that a "confidential informant" had accused Armando of poaching the buck with a rifle while trespassing on land that he didn't have permission to hunt. Armando denied the charge and insisted he had killed the deer legally with a bow.
"I told them they could go to Ted's Taxidermy and see the deer's hide (with the arrow wound) for themselves," Armando said.
To his utter shock, Armando then learned that the antlers and hide had been confiscated. He was told that the hide had been forensically tested and the results proved the arrow hole was "postmortem"
(after death), and that the buck could not have been killed with an arrow. Armando could not believe his ears!
"I have three eyewitnesses who can verify the truth," Armando contended. "Who is this informant who says I used a rifle and trespassed?" The game wardens refused to identify the accuser, insisting that the information was "confidential." Armando stated that he had three witnesses who helped him recover the deer. "Did they see you shoot the deer?" one of the wardens asked.
Armando answered no. He gave a voluntary statement regarding the archery harvest and offered the names of his witnesses. The wardens told him that he was lying and that they'd see him in court. On Dec. 27, 2005, Armando received three citations in the mail: DFW059751 for "Tampering with public records," DFW059752 for "Unlawfully tagging and transportation of a deer," and DFW059753 for "Unlawful possession of a deer." The first charge was eventually dropped.
The decision to ticket Armando was based in part on a forensic analysis by Fish and Wildlife's Division pathologist/toxicologist Dr. Douglas Roscoe. Contrary to the informant's information, Roscoe found no traces of powder or bullet residue in the arrow wound, and the arrow hole was the only intrusion in the deer's skin.
Lt. Leonard's Division report, which was later admitted into court evidence, stated Roscoe had written that the deer could not have been taken by somebody shooting from a tree stand (due to trajectory). In truth, this summation was not found anywhere in Roscoe's written report by the defense attorney.
Unbelievably, not one of Armando's three witnesses was ever interviewed by a game warden. Nor did any wardens ever inspect the kill site or the ladder stand. Additionally, they had no evidence of a poached kill at a trespassing site. Upon cross-examination in court, Armando's lawyer asked Lt. Leonard "if he ever had any prior dealings with Armando as far as charging him with fish and game violations?" Leonard, a 17-year veteran with New Jersey's Fish and Wildlife Division, stated, "No, I have not."
THE SLOW WHEELS OF JUSTICE
After spending more than $8,000 in legal fees and suffering many sleepless nights for over a year, Armando was not able to exonerate himself. He went through one municipal court hearing and one appeal. He does have the option of making one final appeal, which he intends to do if he can come up with the estimated additional $5,000 for attorney fees.
In the spring of 2007 Armando wrote to North American Whitetail about his plight. He included photos, a written version of his story, and the transcripts from the court case and appeal. If he could not get justice in court, he thought, he might at least vindicate himself among his peers with a story.
The evidence supporting Armando's innocence is overwhelming. The entire case apparently was been built around a "confidential informant" who claimed that Armand had killed the deer with a rifle while trespassing. Yet no investigation was ever conducted to verify that claim and it was never proven in court. In fact, if an investigation had been conducted there were numerous witnesses on the scene on Oct. 1, 2005, who could refute that claim. At least, there were numerous witnesses who saw Armando legally hunting with a bow that day and there were three witnesses who helped him recover his arrow and his deer.
Furthermore, if Armando had killed the deer illegally with a gun, why would he have taken the rear portion of the hide, the portion clearly showing the entrance wound (from the arrow), to a taxidermist, where it could later be forensically inspected by authorities? If he had something to hide -- like a bullet wound with powder and lead residue -- it stands to reason that he would have immediately discarded the incriminating evidence. And even if Armando had been guilty, how could the state of New Jersey convict him on such flimsy evidence against the testimony of three eyewitnesses. Armando lost his case solely on an alleged "confidential informant" and a forensics "expert" who testified simply that in his opinion the deer could not have been killed with an arrow.
NO JUSTICE HERE
After reading Armando's story and the court transcripts, North American Whitetail editor Duncan Dobie contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in writing an objective story about Armando's situation. I, too, read the court transcripts, and I couldn't believe that two different New Jersey judges had found Armando guilty in light of such overwhelming evidence of innocence.
I gave Armando a phone call and asked him some questions. My intention was to feel him out and judge his truthfulness. I approached the situation with an open mind; that is, I reserved my opinion of innocence or guilt until I could find out more. Armando's suffering and anxiety over the loss of his reputation and his buck were most evident to me. A 43-year-old truck driver with three daughters, I knew he likely couldn't afford to spend another $5,000 for his second and final court appeal.
It was also evident that the well-being of Armando's family was in jeopardy over mental anguish and the drain of the family's savings. Armando indicated that he was willing to give up the fight because it seemed hopeless, but he wanted his fellow deer hunters to know the true story. After talking to Armando I called the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Division to hear its side of the story. Regional Captain Todd Eisenhain, the supervisor of Kille and Leonard, answered the phone.
I told Captain Eisenhain that I was an outdoor journalist and freelance writer looking into the Armando Pioppi Jr. case. I told him that I had not formed an opinion as to guilt or innocence but that I just wanted to ask a few questions.
My first question was: "Why did the wardens not investigate the kill site or ask to examine the fatal arrow?" Captain Eisenhain stated there was no need to because they already had forensic proof of guilt. (In truth, there was no forensic proof whatsoever. It was all opinion expressed by the prosecution's expert witness.)
"Why did the wardens not interview any of Armando's eyewitnesses?" was my second question.
"What you are asking me, Mr. Davenport, is private information," he answered. "There's more to the story than what came out in court."
"How can this be private, Captain?" I replied. "Armando Pioppi Jr. was convicted in public court."
After that the conversation went downhill and Captain Eisenhain hung up on me. Before he hung up he said he didn't care if the story appeared on the "Oprah" show.
After interviewing one of the eyewitnesses and talking again to Armando, my opinion swayed in Armando's favor. It certainly seemed that New Jersey
Fish and Wildlife had convicted an innocent man. I wrote New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine and Acting Fish and Wildlife Director David Chanda. The certified letters detailed Armando's plight and my encounter with Eisenhain, and posed five pertinent questions about the Kille and Leonard investigation. I received no reply.
Because Duncan Dobie and I had strong feelings that Armando might be innocent, I made arrangements to send him to one of the top polygraphists on the East Coast, Kelley Investigative Security Service. Owner Paul Kelley was a decorated Commander of the Centreville Barracks Division of Maryland's State Police. He was assigned to the Maryland Polygraph Unit in 1991, but has since retired and begun his own polygraph and investigation service.
Paul spent four hours with Armando and asked all the pertinent questions involving the harvest of his buck. The results were conclusive: Armando was telling the truth on all aspects of his kill. Armando's polygraph test was also read by the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Poly Score Program and further supported Paul Kelley's analysis. Armando had indeed killed the buck with a bow exactly as he had claimed.
It is a common misconception that a polygraph test is not admissible in court. This is not true. A polygraph can be entered into evidence if both the defendant and prosecutor agree on admission. Had Armando taken the polygraph before his first court date and given the Division of Fish and Wildlife the results, its admission still might have been denied.
According to Armando, prior to the first court appearance the Division's prosecutor offered him and his lawyer a plea bargain. If Armando pleaded guilty, he would receive only a $100 fine but New Jersey would keep his buck. Had the deal been accepted, Armando would have saved thousands of dollars and multiple court appearances. Armando strongly refused the plea bargain and decided to fight for his innocence in court.
Did New Jersey's court system and Wildlife Division fail Armando?
New Jersey's municipal court system prosecutes game violations "by preponderance of the evidence" as opposed to criminal court, which is guilt or innocence "beyond reasonable doubt." Armando did not have the option of a jury, and it was evident in both court transcripts that neither judge knew anything about deer hunting. It appeared that Armando's first lawyer thought he had a slam-dunk case of innocence and that the judge would agree. But that didn't happen!
Attorney Evan F. Nappen's firm represented Armando on his first appeal. Nappen said that Armando's case was the most blatant miscarriage of justice he had ever seen that involved a game violation. Even the appeals court judge believed the forensic "expert's" testimony over three eyewitnesses. Nappen, who is recommended by the NRA, stated to me that New Jersey's municipal court system is highly "anti-hunting."
There are more questions than answers in this bizarre tale: 1) Did the game wardens perform their jobs according to New Jersey's Fish and Wildlife procedures? I asked two unrelated game wardens from different states what their protocol would have required. Both said they'd have interviewed eyewitnesses and inspected the kill site. 2) In order to get a conviction, did the forensic expert weigh his findings in favor of the prosecution? Dr. Roscoe testified in court that salting of the hide could hinder bullet residue extraction and affect test results.
But according to another top forensics expert that I talked to, Roscoe fell short of stating that salt, scraping and other chemical treatment of the cape could have inhibited test results that would have proven Armando innocent. By Roscoe's own admission in court, he had not contacted the taxidermist to ask about the chemical processing of the cape.
It was also speculated by Warden Kille that the buck "may have been poisoned." Yet neither Roscoe nor either of the game wardens ever asked for any of Armando's meat for testing. 3) Why wasn't the investigation stopped by the division captain when the forensic expert found no traces of bullet residue? 4) Lastly, Carlo DeFeo stated in an interview, "Why weren't Anthony, Chris and I found guilty of perjury if they thought we lied under oath?"
The most distressing question that Armando had to answer during the entire 1 1/2-year ordeal was not in court. His youngest daughter, Victoria, asked, "Daddy, why did those policemen take your deer?"
Holding back tears, Armando answered, "Don't worry, honey, everything will be all right."
Armando tried to remember only what Victoria had said when they were taking photos of the buck on that glorious night. "Daddy, I want to hunt 'deers' just like you."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Armando recently decided to make his second and final appeal in an attempt to clear his name. As mentioned, his lawyer was recommended by the National Rifle Association, of which he is a member. Duncan Dobie and I have established a fund to help pay Armando's legal fees: The Armando Pioppi Jr. Fund. Duncan and I will be the fund's executors.
As fellow deer hunters, let's not let Armando suffer this expense and injustice alone. If you'd like to help, please send a check or money order to: The Armando Pioppi Jr. Fund, State Street Bank East, 4820 Broadway, Quincy, IL 62305. This money is not tax deductible but it is going to a worthy cause. If any money is left over after Armando is reimbursed, that amount will be given to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. We'll keep you updated as to Armando's progress with his appeal.