EXCLUSIVE: Giant Buck Returned to Rightful Owner

 

Bendelow with his deer's antlers after they were returned to him.

Ryan Bendelow with his deer’s antlers after they were returned to him.

In 2013, Ryan Bendelow of Michigan traveled to Illinois and endured what might be one of the worst nightmares an ethical hunter can experience. For an act of decency — showing respect to a stranger he believed was a fellow hunter — Bendelow paid a high price.

By Keri J. Butt
For Deer & Deer Hunting

Most hunters feel obligated to uphold the Golden Rule. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, there will always be exceptions when doing the right thing precedes regret. Many times, after the turmoil subsides, knowing we can look in the mirror with a clear conscience is enough. Sometimes, it’s not.

Bendelow is a licensed builder, and founder and chief executive officer of Vital Shot Outdoor Productions LLC (www.facebook.com/vitalshotoutdoorproductions). He’s also a husband, father, taxidermist and pro-staffer with Upwind Odor Control Products. He and his hunting and business partner, John Chamberlin, are part of Next Level, a show on the Pursuit Channel, through which they travel the Midwest to film their fair-chase hunts.

Bendelow with his Illinois buck that would make any hunter's knees turn to jelly.

Bendelow with his Illinois buck that would make any hunter’s knees turn to jelly.

In 2012, Bendelow was invited by a friend to hunt Fulton County, Ill. Trail cameras at the property revealed many photos of a huge buck with six points on one side and four on the other. Bendelow and his friend set their sights on the buck, which they nicknamed “64,” and estimated the deer’s rack would gross almost 200 inches.

Unfortunately, the invitation to hunt the property came too late for Bendelow to get an Illinois gun permit, and he could hunt only a few days during archery season. Bendelow had three encounters with the Illinois giant — at 77, 51 and 31 yards — but never had an ethical shot. After the 2012 season, trail camera pictures revealed that 64 had survived.

During Summer 2013, Bendelow’s friend emailed him photos of a big buck, but the rack was different than the one 64 had carried, so they weren’t convinced it was the same deer. Regardless, the buck was a monster. With the invitation to hunt the Fulton County property standing, Bendelow planned a return trip. He received an Illinois firearms buck permit and purchased his nonresident license.

Two weeks before Illinois’ 2013 gun season, Bendelow learned that his friend had shot a buck he believed to be 64 during archery season. The hunter thought his shot was fatal but decided to let the deer lay overnight, giving the buck time to die.

The big buck was captured on game cameras a few times.

The big buck was captured on game cameras a few times.

“As a hunter, and more importantly as a friend, I was excited for my friend, and I congratulated him on his accomplishment, wished him luck and asked for him to keep me posted on the recovery of his buck,” Bendelow said. “Although there is a sadness of not harvesting a buck like that yourself, congratulating your friends and being truly happy for their success is what hunting with friends is all about for me. My friend gave me an opportunity to hunt a buck of a lifetime, and I was extremely excited for him. But I was also disappointed that the deer I was after was likely dead now.”

Unfortunately, after a considerable tracking effort, even bringing in a professional tracker with a hound, the hunter couldn’t recover the buck, as the blood trail slowly disappeared. The giant whitetail also seemed to vanish from the property. Trail-cam photos revealed nothing, and it was assumed the buck had ventured into thick brush and died.

Game camera images showed a buck growing huge antlers and giving hunters fits of anticipation.

Game camera images showed a buck growing huge antlers and giving hunters fits of anticipation.

Timeline of a Hunt
On Nov. 22, 2013, opening day of the first of Illinois’ two annual gun seasons, Bendelow climbed into his best stand armed with his .50-caliber CVA Optima muzzleloader and 270-grain Platinum PowerBelt bullets. He noticed two men in blaze orange entering the property across the road but thought nothing of it. The day was extremely cold, with 20 mph north winds, and deer activity was minimal. Bendelow hunted all day but observed that the strangers hunted only the morning, and then returned for an afternoon hunt.

The next day, the weather was identical, and deer movement was slow again. Bendelow didn’t see the other hunters.

On November 24, the final day of the first gun season, Bendelow readied himself and headed out. He didn’t see the other men or their truck. After getting to his stand and setting up a video camera, he waited. At about 7:15 a.m., he looked across the field and saw a giant buck trailing a doe, heading into the timber about 500 yards away. The buck appeared to be licking a wound on his side. After a quick glance through his binocular, Bendelow realized the buck was not 64 but was likely the deer his friend had shot with his bow earlier.

Hello, big buck! Game camera images continued to show what Illinois and management can produce.

Hello, big buck! Game camera images continued to show what Illinois and management can produce.

Bendelow has spent much of the past few years filming and documenting his hunting experiences, which made his decision to leave the camera and pursue the buck difficult.

“With the encounters in 2012 with the giant, and the fact that my friend and I thought the buck was dead, I decided that I was going to try to close the gap on the biggest buck I’ve ever seen in my life — camera or not,” he said.

After watching the buck and doe through semi-open timber, Bendelow was careful to limit his noise as he lowered his hunting pack and gun and then climbed down. The deer didn’t notice.

“I had seen the buck tending the doe in the timber, and from my experience they will hold up in cover and try to keep their privacy in this situation,” he said. “I knew that if I could get in range undetected, I would have a shot.”

Grabbing his gun, Bendelow belly crawled almost 300 yards to get into position for a clean shot, pausing often to glass the deer. He finally closed the gap to 191 yards, a distance with which he was comfortable.

“With my gun dialed in for 200 yards, I was extremely confident I could make a clean shot,” he said.

The next several hours were mentally excruciating, as the deer stood and laid back down several times.

The grueling waiting game lasted far longer than Bendelow would have liked. Finally, the buck, still tending a wound on his side, stood and presented the shot Bendelow had been preparing for. In the prone position, using his binocular for a solid rest, he squeezed the trigger.

Putting on the feed bag in summer helped the buck grow gigantic antlers with some great character.

Putting on the feed bag in summer helped the buck grow gigantic antlers with some great character.

The gun misfired, likely from condensation in the barrel. After hearing the primer ignite, the buck and doe went on high alert. Worse, Bendelow had been so focused on getting into position to kill the buck that he’d forgotten to grab his bag with additional ammo when he’d climbed out of the stand.

“My heart sank,” he said. “I figured that I blew it.”

Fortunately, fate provided a distraction. A loud pickup rumbled along the road in the distance, giving Bendelow enough diversion to get his bag.

“I seized the opportunity and sprinted toward my pack as fast as I could,” he said. “I managed to make it there, remove the misfired propellant and reload the muzzleloader.”

Bendelow no longer saw the deer, and his heart sank again.

“I actually texted my wife and told her I just blew it on the biggest buck I’d ever seen,” he said. “Being on the road, far from home and sacrificing my time away from my family is hard. Blowing an opportunity on the buck of a lifetime makes it that much harder.”

Then, Bendelow glimpsed enormous antlers jutting out of some brush. The deer had laid back down. Hoping for a second opportunity, he grabbed his muzzleloader and crawled back to where he’d originally shot at the buck.

At about 11 a.m., the buck stood and presented a perfect broadside shot. Bendelow settled the cross-hairs on the buck’s vitals and squeezed the trigger. This time the gun fired. Unfortunately, with minimal wind, the smoke from the muzzleloader lingered, preventing Bendelow from viewing the impact or the buck’s body language. When the smoke cleared, he saw the buck had bolted, but the doe just stood there, frozen and spooked.

The buck stopped 30 yards away, and Bendelow thought, “Go down, go down.” But the buck didn’t drop. Instead, it began to circle back.

“I couldn’t believe he was coming back,” he said. “I thought I’d missed.”

The doe remained still, and Bendelow managed to reload his rifle. It was about 11:15 a.m., and the buck was quartering toward him. Bendelow knew his time for a shot was extremely limited, so he put the cross-hairs on the buck’s throat and pulled the trigger.

Again, smoke swirled, but Bendelow saw the buck and doe running at full speed, traveling a circular route and heading for safer ground. This time, he was sure his shot had connected.

Bendelow found no blood at the impact site, but he’d made a visual landmark where he’d seen the buck run across the road, so he ventured that way. When he reached the road, he discovered a promising amount of blood but decided to wait until about 3 p.m. before tracking the buck.

“I didn’t see the impact,” he said. “I didn’t see him fall over. He was a big, tough buck, and I had blood on the road. I marked the spot with a smashed can I found in the ditch and followed the rule I hunt by: When in doubt, back out.”

Dawn of American Deer Hunting Cover

SEE ALSO: Dawn of American Deer Hunting: A Photographic Odyssey

No Good Deed
Goes Unpunished
Later that afternoon, after getting permission from the owner of the property where the buck had run, Bendelow went to search for his deer. He had just eased off the steep bank on the roadside when he heard someone shout, “Hey!” Bendelow saw a man in blaze orange walking toward him. He recognized the man as one of the guys he’d seen hunting the neighboring property opening day. Bendelow and the hunter shook hands and made introductions. The man even willingly provided his name.

With only a couple of hours of gun season remaining, Bendelow told the man the situation, omitting that the buck was a giant, and showed him the blood on the road. Out of courtesy, Bendelow offered to stay off the property so the man could hunt the final hours of the season.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to ruin the guy’s hunt. I was pretty certain the buck was dead and wanted to give (the man) a chance to fill his tag. It’s what I would have wanted someone to do for me.”

The hunter wished Bendelow luck, thanked him and headed toward the timber. Being a guest on the property, Bendelow assumed the man had permission to be there.

Doing what’s right is one thing, but taking chances with the biggest buck of your life is another. Perhaps Bendelow had a gut feeling, but he wasn’t 100 percent willing to bank on a stranger reciprocating the good deed. The terrain let him be inconspicuous, so Bendelow parked his truck 200 yards off the road, shut off the engine and sat with the windows down until well after dark, listening for gunshots. He heard none. He also noted that the man didn’t exit the woods via the same path on which he’d entered.

Excited to finally find the Illinois giant, Bendelow and several friends picked up the trail where he’d last found blood before being interrupted. As soon as he got off the road, Bendelow discovered lots of lung blood and tissue. The trail ended 75 yards off the road. Obscene amounts of blood had pooled up where the deer had obviously died.

Plenty of blood was found on the trail until it ended where Bendelow got a kick in the guts.

Plenty of blood was found on the trail until it ended where Bendelow got a kick in the guts.

Then, Bendelow made a revolting discovery: blood and a scrotum, only 15 yards from the man’s treestand. It was all that remained of his deer.

“I knew my buck had been stolen,” he said. “I panicked. I freaked out.”

Bendelow was stunned, but because of the odd introduction earlier, it wasn’t tough to determine what had occurred. Bendelow mentioned the name the stranger had provided him, and a local friend in the hunting party knew the man.

Instead of taking the law into his own hands, Bendelow called the Illinois DNR and reported the incident, including the name of the man he suspected and the description of his buck.

A long, harrowing process began after Bendelow shot the monster buck in Illinois. Conservation officials got a call about an alleged poaching incident and this photo of a man with a deer.

The Investigation
Ironically, just before Bendelow’s phone call, the DNR had received a photo of a man posing with a huge buck, along with an anonymous tip alleging that the man had stolen the deer while trespassing on private land and then falsely reporting it as a legal harvest. The IDNR officer who took Bendelow’s initial report sent him the picture of a man beside a giant buck, proudly holding its rack. Immediately, Bendelow knew it was the guy he’d met that afternoon, and the buck looked identical to the one he had shot with his muzzleloader that morning.

DNR Sgt. Dan Sandman, now retired, was called to investigate. He met Bendelow at the scene and took his official statement. Bendelow showed Sandman the blood trail, which started on his side of the road and ended on the other, which helped establish shot placement. The tremendous blood and lung tissue indicated a vital hit, and the scrotum stated the obvious: It was a buck.

Sandman drove to the man’s home, where he discovered the buck hanging in the garage. When questioned, the man said he’d killed the buck with a copper bullet. Cutting into the opposite side of one of the entry wounds, Sandman retrieved a bullet. He noted it was not copper but didn’t divulge that. He then contacted Bendelow to verify the type of firearm and ammunition he’d used to kill the buck.

A second chance with his muzzleloader proved to be successful for Bendelow. His platinum bullets proved to be a telling clue for game wardens investigating the case.

A second chance with his muzzleloader proved to be successful for Bendelow. His platinum bullets proved to be a telling clue for game wardens investigating the case.

Bendelow’s description of the shot placements and the unique Platinum 270-grain PowerBelt ammo matched Sandman’s findings, which convinced him Bendelow was being honest about the incident. At that point, it wasn’t known if the man had permission to hunt the property where the buck had died. He had already reported the buck as a legal harvest using his tag. Unfortunately, although the man hadn’t been truthful about the ammo he’d supposedly used to kill the buck, the solution wasn’t as simple as issuing a citation for falsifying records, confiscating the buck and returning it to the rightful owner (see the sidebar). Sandman had to follow proper procedures if Bendelow were to get the buck back. In Illinois, the person who tags and reports a deer possesses legal ownership of the animal. The man had already reported the buck, and his dishonesty about the ammo wasn’t enough for Sandman to legally take the deer from him. So, Sandman next stopped at the landowner’s place.

The landowner confirmed that the man had been trespassing on his property, and Sandman obtained a sworn statement. He then had authority to confiscate the deer. However, when he returned to the man’s residence, the buck was gone. Sandman’s only option was to issue tickets for trespassing and wrongful taking of game. When Sandman asked the man where the buck was, the man said it was “in a safe place.”

Hearing that his buck was gone didn’t sit very well with Bendelow. “At this point, I was in total disbelief that this guy wasn’t in jail,” he said. “He had my deer, and all he got was a couple of tickets.”

Sandman understood Bendelow’s frustration, even though there was nothing else he could do at that point. He promised Bendelow he would do everything possible to get the buck back, which helped put Bendelow in a more rational frame of mind.

“The hardest thing for me to do was to tell Ryan to have faith in the system,” Sandman said. “I didn’t even know if I had enough faith in the system. Ryan was essentially being punished for doing the right thing.”

Still hopeful and trying to remain positive, Bendelow spoke with his wife and decided to stay in town a few more days. He didn’t know where the buck was but knew who had it. Plus, considering the evidence, he figured he’d have the buck back by the end of the week.

Instead of waiting and hoping his phone would ring with good news, Bendelow put his videography skills to use. He produced a video of the blood trail, the scrotum, blood on both sides of the road, a series of text messages he’d sent to family and friends to establish the timeline and, of course, detailed commentary. Along with Sandman’s reports, especially the man’s lies about the ammo, Bendelow believed his video provided solid evidence he had legally harvested the buck, and he gave Sandman a copy of the footage.

It soon became clear, however, that Bendelow would be driving back to Michigan with only memories of the hunt. Even those were marred by the almost unfathomable ordeal he’d been through — one that wouldn’t end soon. Worse, the notion of retrieving his buck of a lifetime was waning.

Ryan Bendelow was trying to do the right thing by allowing what he thought was a fellow hunter complete his hunt, but this buck's giant antlers and egotistical greed proved to be too much for the poacher.

Ryan Bendelow was trying to do the right thing by allowing what he thought was a fellow hunter complete his hunt, but this buck’s giant antlers and egotistical greed proved to be too much for the poacher.

Spring 2014: The Trial
Day 1: The first court date was a bench trial. The Fulton County state’s attorney prosecuted the case, and he called Bendelow to the witness stand. The trespasser pleaded not guilty but produced no evidence that he had legally harvested the buck. Bendelow, however, had plenty. Although the commentary in his video wasn’t allowed in the courtroom, the judge let him narrate the timeline. The trial ran long, so the judge set a second court date.

Day 2: Bendelow and Sandman weren’t allowed in the courtroom the second day of the trial, as they could have been recalled to the stand for rebuttal during the defense’s case. Bendelow opted not to come to the area, having faith Sandman would let him know the outcome.

After listening to the testimony, the judge ruled that the man was guilty on both counts and docked 12 points from the man’s hunting license (see the sidebar below). The judge’s next order, however, sealed the process. The man was ordered to relinquish the buck to the DNR so officers could return it to its rightful owner. Otherwise, he’d spend 30 days in jail. He decided to turn the buck, or what was left of it, over to the agency.

Immediately after the hearing, Sandman followed the man from the courthouse to his home, where he recovered the rack and the hide, which were in surprisingly good condition. Then, he called Bendelow.

SEE ALSO: GREAT BUCKS ON THE DDH 2015-16 BUCK POLE HONOR ROLL

Bendelow was ecstatic when he received Sandman’s call. It had been more than a year since he’d shot the deer. He had waited so long, not knowing where the buck was or what the outcome would be. It almost didn’t seem possible that after a 30-day waiting period, he would have his buck back. The nightmare was finished.

“Dan Sandman and his department, the state’s attorney and the judge deserve so much credit,” he said. “They worked their butts off, and it didn’t cost me a dime. I greatly appreciate everything they did, because their actions helped me get my buck back.”

Recovering the deer was more than Bendelow could have hoped for. But the true cost of the incident wasn’t lost on him. Taking a buck of that caliber would have benefitted everyone, including Upwind, which sponsors Vital Shot Outdoor Productions.

Andy Gasper, business development and marketing rep for Upwind, said the Upwind team was thrilled to hear that Bendelow’s buck was returned.

“Anytime you’re putting your products out there, you have to have ground-level testimonies,” he said. “Not that hunting is all about advertising, because it’s not. Most of us hunt because we enjoy it and it’s tradition. We hunted long before we ever made a business out of it. We were heartbroken to learn that Ryan’s buck had been stolen. We have a ton of respect for him because he does all of the legwork for his hunts himself, and his success is important to us.”

Bendelow's buck was returned to him by Illinois conservation officers following a 2-day trial and many long hours of anxiety about the entire situation.

Bendelow’s buck was returned to him by Illinois conservation officers following a 2-day trial and many long hours of anxiety about the entire situation.

The Copper Buck
Bendelow nicknamed his deer “Copper,” which seemed appropriate. “With all of the support and friendship that I received from the guys at Upwind, it was only fitting to name my buck Copper after the active ingredient in Upwind’s product line, which I was using the day I killed him,” he said. “Copper’s story speaks for itself, but I truly believe in their products. That buck is as much theirs as it is mine.”

Bendelow tried to be a good sportsmen the day he shot the deer, and he’ll continue to strive for that reputation. However, it’s unlikely he’ll put that much trust in a stranger again.

“Unfortunately, I paid the price for assuming the guy would treat me the same way,” he said. “Photos and celebrations with family and friends are one of the best parts of hunting. They’re invaluable and mean everything to me. Copper was the biggest buck I’ve ever killed. I missed out on something and I’ll never get that back.”

Sadly, some folks undeservingly call themselves hunters. They deem it their right to seize someone else’s good fortune and hard work and pass it off as their own. They even boast about “their” trophy, concoct false events and take photographs to show their buddies. Thankfully, redemption comes to most ethical hunters. We’re constantly mindful to hold ethics in high regard and choose to live and hunt by them. We see nothing dignified in bragging about killing an animal we didn’t legally and ethically harvest ourselves. The animals we hunt deserve our deepest respect, appreciation and admiration. Anything that falls short is wrong.

— Keri Butt is an avid whitetail hunter and outdoor writer from northern Illinois.

Editor’s note: Copper gross-scored almost 187 inches and now holds a special place on the Bendelow family’s wall.

SEE ALSO: THE CASE FOR MECHANICAL BROADHEADS (AND LIGHTED NOCKS)

SIDEBAR: Violation Explanation: The Point System
Illinois uses a point system for license revocation/privilege suspensions. State law holds that each time someone is found guilty of a wildlife code violation by an Illinois circuit court or a U.S. District Court in an Illinois district, the number of points assigned to that violation will be charged against that person.

The defendant in the Copper buck case was convicted of trespassing and the wrongful taking of game. He was assessed nine points for one violation and three for the other. “His second (conviction) was assessed three because of the single-incident rule,” said Dan Sandman, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources officer who investigated the case. “The points are in our database from three years from date of conviction. Anytime you accrue more than 12 points in any three-year period, your privilege to hunt in Illinois and about 39 other states is suspended. The suspension period is one month for each point you have accrued. Eighteen points equals 18 months.”

Sandman said the single-incident rule was enacted after the first year of the point system because of the number of license suspensions that occurred. “A conviction for hunting without permission and not wearing blaze orange suspended people for 18 months that first year,” he said. “With that (single-incident) rule in place, they would have accrued only 12 points and be teetering on the brink for the next three years.”

 

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SIDEBAR 2: The Warden’s View
The theft of Ryan Bendelow’s buck might seem straightforward, but the case presented many challenges. That’s why Illinois Department of Natural Resources officer Dan Sandman had to proceed carefully and follow strict protocol while investigating the incident. Sandman, now retired, talked with Deer & Deer Hunting about details of the investigation, which ultimately led to the conviction.

D&DH: During your initial visit to (the suspect’s) home, when you found the deer in his garage and questioned him about the ammo he used, why couldn’t you confiscate the buck as soon as it was evident he was lying? Couldn’t he have been ticketed for falsifying records or failure to notify because he tagged the buck with a harvest tag instead of contacting the DNR for an appropriate salvage tag? Wouldn’t that have been enough to confiscate the buck from the residence?

Sandman: “Hindsight is always 20/20. I have thought about this question many times since all of this occurred. But there are many reasons I didn’t. At that point in time, I wasn’t sure what ammo (Ryan Bendelow) had been using. It was the third day of firearms season, and the deer could have been shot by anyone — Ryan, (the suspect) or on any other adjoining property. Deer carry many old wounds as they go through life. This deer had been shot with a bow only about a week prior. Another thing I considered was what appeared to be a bullet wound on the neck of the deer. Was this a bullet wound? If so, where was the bullet? Whose bullet was it? I have seen bullets do many strange things after they enter a deer.

“You are correct in taking the angle of falsifying a record by reporting a deer he didn’t kill. But at this point, I had a deer with what I believed to be two bullet wounds and two different guys telling me that they had shot it. Only later did Ryan describe taking two shots at it (head on and broadside, with the right side of the deer facing him). By then, I also knew what type of ammo he was using. Up until this time, I had never seen a PowerBelt bullet out of the packaging.

“I have never taken government intrusion into someone’s home lightly. No other area of law enforcement, except for use of force/deadly force, carries with it the amount of liability that an improper search and seizure carries. When I had enough probable cause, I had left the residence and spoke again with Ryan. That is why I then tried to go through the States Attorney’s Office for a search warrant. I was going to take the deer for a necropsy to determine the true cause of death for the deer and which bullet(s) went where in the deer.”

D&DH: Would the landowner have had any claim to the deer?

Sandman: “In Illinois, all wildlife belongs to the people of the state of Illinois. Only after it has been legally taken and reported does it become an individual’s property. Even then, the state dictates what you can and can’t do with parts of it. The DNR is able to dispose of contraband pursuant to law. If the contraband were a boat or motor vehicle, it would be sold at auction. In this case, I asked specific permission through (Illinois DNR headquarters in) Springfield to have the deer given to Ryan. Springfield’s only concern was that the landowner might later decide he was entitled to the deer in some way. The landowner signed a statement for me stating that he had no claim to the deer and would not ever have a claim to it. This was the only obstacle that Springfield wanted removed. Best I can figure, it was someone in our legal staff that brought it up as a concern.”

D&DH: In a case such as this, is there ever cause to arrest someone and take them to jail, or is it a matter of issuing appropriate citations and letting a judge handle the rest? Could anything (the suspect) did be considered to be a felony, or were all charges misdemeanors?

Sandman: “All charges were misdemeanors. I could have taken (the suspect) to jail for the offenses, but no doubt he would have beaten me out the back door. There is only one felony in the wildlife code. It deals with the sale of wildlife. If you have ever received a traffic citation, you have been ‘arrested.’ It was just not a custodial arrest where you were handcuffed and taken to jail. For Class A misdemeanor cases, the suspect has to be fingerprinted. In most counties. The easiest way to do this is to take the suspect into custody and transport them to jail. In Fulton County, they have special court dates that you can assign where all suspects are fingerprinted on the date of their initial court date. By doing it this way, the sheriff’s department know exactly how many people will be booked on these dates and can have adequate staff on hand. By taking someone in at random times, it becomes a burden on the jail staff, as it takes them away from all of their other duties. Most of the time, Fulton County has one male jailer and one female jailer working.”

 

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