September 22, 2010
Our December 2007 issue carried the troubling story of a New Jersey hunter whose deer was confiscated by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. Here is a brief overview of what happened and the results of Armando Pioppi Jr.'s court case.
Armando Pioppi Jr. proudly poses with his 15-point trophy whitetail the day after the deer was shot in October 2005. Sharing the happy occasion is wife Donna and daughter Victoria. Unfortunately for the Pioppi family, Armando's "buck of a lifetime" celebration soon turned into an unfathomable nightmare.
On the afternoon of Oct. 1, 2005, Armando Pioppi Jr. and friend Carlo DeFeo of New Jersey climbed into their tree stands on private property in hopes of taking an opening-day archery whitetail. Armando connected on a 15-point buck, albeit with a poorly placed shot. Carlo and two other friends later helped Armando track the deer after dark.
Fortunately, the shot had penetrated the animal's right ham and cut the femoral artery. The deer expired within 100 yards. After tagging his buck, Armando made a joyous phone call to his wife Donna and other friends. A small entourage of wellwishers met him as the deer was being pulled to the roadside.
Armando checked his buck at a local taxidermy shop (as prescribed by New Jersey law). He also arranged to have it mounted by the shop's owner. He later returned to that taxidermist with the full skin, cape and antlers for a three-quarter body mount. The three-bladed broadhead hole through the deer's skin on its right hindquarter was clearly visible. There were no other holes in the skin.
Five weeks later, two New Jersey game wardens came to Armando's home and informed him that a "confidential informant" claimed he had poached the 15-point buck with a rifle while trespassing. They went on to say that they had confiscated the cape, skin and antlers from the taxidermist and were having the skin forensically tested by a Dr. Douglas Roscoe.
No powder burns or bullet residue was ever found on or around the broadhead hole. However, Roscoe contended that the broadhead wound was postmortem (made after death). There was no scientific evidence to back up this opinion, and how he came to this conclusion is a mystery to many. On Dec. 27, 2005, Armando's received three wildlife violations by mail: 1) Tampering with public records, 2) Unlawful tagging and transportation of a deer, and 3) Unlawful possession of a deer. The first charge was eventually dropped.
FIGHTING FOR THE TRUTH
Before Armando's first court date, he was offered a plea bargain. He was told that he could pay a $100 fine and forfeit his buck to the state. Armando refused the "bargain" and elected to fight for his rights. Unfortunately, despite the prosecution's extremely weak case, the municipal trial judge ignored the testimony of Armando's three eyewitnesses, and Armando was found guilty.
It was the same story with his first appeal. Armando's final appeal was heard in early December 2007 just as his story was reaching the public in the December issue of North American Whitetail. In a hearing that took less than 10 minutes, Armando lost that appeal as well after one of the two judges present insinuated that each of Armando's three witnesses had lied under oath about tracking and recovering the buck.
By this time, Armando had accumulated thousands of dollars in legal fees, countless heartaches, a number of unpaid days off work, and more than two years' worth of sleepless nights -- only to be defeated by what appeared to be a very unfair legal system in New Jersey.
Earlier in 2007, Armando had sent a handwritten story about his plight and a copy of the original court transcripts to North American Whitetail editor Duncan Dobie. Duncan later sent them to me and asked me if I'd be interested in writing a story about what had taken place. Since I was very interested, we asked Armando -- at his own expense -- to take a polygraph test. He agreed to do so without a moment's hesitation. The test was conducted by one of the top polygraphists on the East Coast -- Paul Kelley of Maryland.
Four hours of intense scrutiny by Kelley strongly supported a high probability of Armando's innocence. In fact, after both Kelley and experts at Johns Hopkins University had read Armando's graphs, Kelley stated that the test results indicated one of the highest probabilities of truthfulness he had seen on any polygraph test. Unfortunately, this evidence could not be introduced at Armando's final appeal.
GRASPING AT STRAWS
Here is a partial list of facts that attracted editor Duncan Dobie and me to this story in the first place: 1) No New Jersey law enforcement official ever interviewed the three eyewitnesses who helped Armando follow a very distinct blood trail and find his fatally wounded buck. 2) No law enforcement official ever investigated the kill site, despite the fact that testimony was given in court insinuating that Armando's buck could not have been shot from a tree stand due to arrow trajectory. 3) As a witness for the prosecution, one of the game wardens also stated that the buck might have died from being poisoned, yet none of the meat in Armando's freezer was ever tested. 4) Under oath, "expert witness" Roscoe stated that the broadhead wound was "postmortem," but Armando's numerous photos clearly show a trickle of dried blood on the deer's hindquarter around the wound area. Certainly Roscoe and the various judges who heard the case have to know that a postmortem intrusion on muscle tissue does not bleed freely like a wound made before death. 5) And finally, why would a deer hunter like Armando Pioppi Jr. be willing to spend over $10,000 and waste countless hours defending himself if he could have avoided the entire nightmare by pleading guilty and paying a simple $100 fine?
Before his final appeal was heard and lost in December 2007, Armando filed a complaint with New Jersey's Independent Council in regard to the game wardens' unprecedented behavior and the lack of any tangible proof that he had broken any laws whatsoever. A Lieutenant Matt Brown supposedly interviewed the game wardens involved in the case, and Brown later told Armando that he had uncovered no "unethical behavior" on the part of the game wardens and that their investigation of the charges against Armando was "acceptable" to him.
"So much for an 'Independent Council!' " Armando later told me. "It was more like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop!"
As mentioned in the December '07 issue of North American Whitetail, Duncan and I established a fund to help pay Armando's considerable legal fees. We decided that if any money happened to be left over after reimbursing Armando, it would be donated to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The response from concerned whitetail hunters across America was ov
Shortly after Armando's story was published, donations ranging from $10 to several hundred dollars came pouring in from 38 different states. One generous hunter from California sent in a check for $1,000! Virtually all of the checks were accompanied by typed or handwritten letters showing great support for Armando and great outrage at what had happened to him. And thanks to you, the generous readers of North American Whitetail, a sizable portion of Armando's legal fees were paid from those donations.
However, even though Armando still had to bear considerable out-of-pocket expenses, he was so deeply touched by the generosity of his fellow whitetail hunters and he was so grateful for the overwhelming support he received that he insisted a donation be made to St. Jude Hospital. We complied with his wishes. Armando and his family would like to give a heartfelt "thank you" to all of the concerned readers who supported him and his family and who wanted to see justice served.
THE LETTERS SAY IT ALL
It's not possible to print all of the great letters of support for Armando, but here are a few excerpts from the many who sent in donations.
Dave H., Delaware: "Armando, I am a retired state trooper and a hunter and was very annoyed at how poor investigations still can use the system. Good luck and good hunting!"
Douglas C., North Carolina: "As I read the article, I believed every word of it. A similar situation happened to me in 2006. The wardens took my buck of a lifetime and a lot more. The judge who heard my case did not listen to my side of the story, either. Heck, he didn't even know the game laws and he was not a hunter.
"The warden controlled the courtroom, and no one questioned anything he said. I was hoping my story was an isolated case, but it is not. I have heard that it happens everywhere. I truly hope you win your appeal and get back everything you lost, including your deer of a lifetime."
James S., Texas: "We hunters in Texas do not elect public officials and judges who are anti-hunters. I read the story in North American Whitetail and sympathize with Armando and other hunters in his state."
D.S., Louisiana: "My personal thanks goes out to your magazine, the writer, your supporters, and especially Mr. Duncan Dobie for bringing this story to us. I've been a subscriber to North American Whitetail since its conception. Thanks and God bless the Pioppi family."
Ronnie W., Virginia: "Armando, I was very touched as I read the story behind your current troubles. My emotions ranged from sadness to one of rage over what seems to be a huge miscarriage of justice and downright inexcusable behavior on the part of the courts and law enforcement officials.
"Having spent 10 years as a sheriff's deputy, I am normally one who gives the courts the benefit of the doubt, but in your case, their decision seems to have been completely wrong. I have known and worked with a number of fine game wardens in Virginia, but I am ashamed by the behavior of the game wardens handling your case. Their actions give everyone in law enforcement a bad name."
D.J., New Jersey: "Thank you for having the courage to print this article. New Jersey hunters have been targets for too long, and someone needs to reverse the tide. Please encourage Armando to take this the distance."
Howard G., California: "Lazy, ignorant and biased judges all too often support disingenuous law enforcement without question. Unfortunately, this is all too common in the sportsman's world today. Especially targeted is the 'little guy' who can be bullied into submission because of legal costs. If the accused attempts to defend himself, he is faced with overwhelming force to 'cave in' or face the wrath of whatever agency is attacking him. Thank you for having the guts to help this man."
Norman C., Kentucky: "I have been a subscriber to North American Whitetail for many years and have enjoyed it very much. I am Amish and have a family with eight children -- two boys and six girls -- and we all enjoy deer hunting. We have taken some nice bucks over the years.
"Deer season has always been a wonderful time for us. It really touched our hearts when we read the story of Armando. We like your magazine even better knowing that you care about people like Armando and his family. Let's pray for them and give them all the support we can."
Abe H., Ohio: "I want to thank all who have been involved in getting this fund together for Mr. Pioppi. I think it is a great way to show him that there are still people who care. There are always two sides to every story. I have never heard of somebody being convicted without an investigation. This is totally illegal. God bless."
Ron A., North Carolina: "I recently took my best whitetail last October, a once-in-a-lifetime buck scoring over 184 inches. I tried to place myself in Mr. Pioppi's position. I would hope that my fellow fair-chase hunters would come to my rescue if I had been so unfairly treated."
Patrick P., Wisconsin: "Armando, you have no reason whatsoever for thinking that other hunters believe you did anything wrong, unethical or illegal. You got framed by the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Division and the court system. That kind of treatment would never be allowed here in Wisconsin.
"Take care, Armando, and when you hunt again with joy, you will have won. Not only that, but you have given your kids a powerful and beautiful gift, the gift of seeing you fight for the truth against great odds. You have my greatest respect and admiration."
Patrick hit the nail on the head! Armando's daughter Philicia, 14, wrote a school essay about this very subject. The class assignment was titled "A Special Gift in My Life." Here are the heartfelt first and last paragraphs of that essay from a loving daughter.
"A special gift I have received in life is my dad, Armando Pioppi. He has shown me that it's important to fight for my rights. For going on three years now, my father has been fighting for his right to keep a 15-point deer he took with a bow and arrow. The New Jersey Fish and Wildlife said he shot it with a gun or found it and then claimed it for his own. My father would never lie to anyone, including the state.
"Although my father's situation has cost our family lots of money, we love him and appreciate that he has taught us to fight for our rights. What he made me realize is that when I get accused of doing something I know I didn't do, I should always fight back no matter what. My life has changed because of this, and I know my father, my hero, will always be there for me. I LOVE YOU, DAD!
Although it seems clear that Armando will never recover his buck from the state of New Jersey, a number of generous professionals have offered to reproduce his trophy. Well-known artist and antler repairman Tom Sexton of Iowa and antler replicator Bryan Umbanhowar of Illinois have each offered, at no charge, to replicate Armando's 15-point rack
from the numerous photos that were taken of it. Two taxidermists, Don Travis of Maryland and Doug Davenport of Illinois (my brother), have offered, at no charge, to mount those antlers for Armando. We are now well on our way to having that service performed for Armando by these generous artists.
Armando, his wife Donna, and their three daughters deeply thank all North American Whitetail readers who supported them financially in their fight to regain a legally taken whitetail. "The replica buck will mean more to me and my family than the real one," Armando stated.
America doesn't work without a fair and impartial court system. When the court system fails, America fails.