How can state game wardens slap a man with charges for breaking Texas game laws when he is in an entirely different state more than 1000 miles away when the offenses allegedly occurred? Sam Lovell of Kennard may go to his grave trying to figure that one out.
Lovell was among four men charged by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department wardens in July for allegedly killing two American alligators on private property in Leon County without landowner consent.
Lovell yelled foul from the get-go. Interestingly, Leon County Attorney Jim Witt dismissed the charges against Lovell on Aug. 30. Witt said the dismissal came after new evidence surfaced to indicate that Lovell was working in Michigan on the days Texas game wardens had accused him of being up to no good on the Trinity.
One of the alligators in question was a monster 880-pounder measuring more than 13 feet in length. It was shot on June 11 by Dallas attorney Levi McCathern.
McCathern was guided by outfitter Steve Barclay and his deckhand, Ryan Burton, both of Kennard. All three men have entered not guilty pleas in a Leon County court.
Barclay is Lovell’s brother-in-law. The two men have run a successful guide business on the Trinity for several years targeting American alligators and alligator gar. Thus their collective name: “The Gar Guys.”
Word of the McCathern’s huge ‘gator spread quickly as stories began showing up in newspapers and on television stations around the state. That’s when sparks started to fly.
On July 20, the TPWD news and information staff released a story announcing that state game wardens had filed charges against Barclay, Lovell, Burton and McCathern for taking wildlife on private property without landowner permission.
The story went out to dozens of news outlets across Texas and beyond. The writer of the story, Mike Cox, said via e-mail that he wrote the news release after receiving “numerous media calls asking about the game warden investigation into the matter.”
“Given that intense media interest in Texas’ largest media market, I did the news release when the game warden captain for that district (Capt. Gary Dugan) notified me that charges had been filed.”
According to Dugan, the charges against the four men came on the heels of an investigation carried out after a Leon County landowner reported that the big alligator was killed on his property without his permission on June 11. The landowner also said a smaller alligator was taken on the property the day before. The investigation was conducted by Leon county game wardens Oscar Henson and Logan Griffin, and Houston County wardens Zack Benge and Eddie Lear.
Two TPWD Non-Consent Affidavits obtained through an open records request to the Leon County Clerk’s office name Michael Brown as the landowner who filed the complaints against Lovell. The affidavits, both sworn under oath, describe the property in question as “Brown Farm” in Leon County.
Both affidavits signed by Brown on June 24, 2011 state: “Sam Lovell did not have permission or consent to hunt, fish, enter on the above described property on or about 6-11-11 and 6-10-11. It is my wish that criminal charges be filed against the above named person (Sam Lovell). I am aware that I may be called upon to testify in court.” The documents are signed by Leon County game warden, Oscar Henson.
This is where things begin to get cloudy. But not just because Barclay claims that he and Lovell have had permission to hunt on the private property in question for about three years.
For starters, Lovell said he was on a river last June 10-11, but it darned sure wasn’t the Trinity.
Lovell says he opted out of the 2011 alligator hunting season to take a job in Michigan. Since April, he says he has been working 10-12 hour shifts running an air boat doing oil spill clean-up on the Kalamazoo River.
Affidavits from Lovell’s employer, along with phone records obtained by subpoena, convinced Witt that Lovell was telling the truth. Thus the grounds for dismissal.
“The evidence I acquired after the case was submitted to me following the investigation (by TPWD) indicated that Sam Lovell was someplace else and not in Leon County on the days in question,” Witt said. “After reviewing that evidence, I felt the case needed to be dismissed.”
Now that Lovell has been cleared, the question arises of how TPWD’s investigation implicated Lovell in the case.
According to Dugan, Barclay is the one who placed Lovell at the Trinity River on the days in question.
“The reason the warrants were issued (for Lovell) was because of a statement that Steve Barclay made to a game warden (Zack Benge of Houston County) that implicated Sam Lovell,” Dugan said. “He (Barclay) can deny it, but I don’t believe that game warden would make something like that up.
“Obviously, he (Lovell) was not there,” Dugan added. “I don’t know if Zack may have misunderstood him about something else or what, but that statement was made and we went with the evidence we had.”
Dugan indicated that attempts were made to interview the men after the charges were filed, but they refused to talk.
“They lawyered up right off the bat,” he said. “We tried to investigate it and they weren’t cooperating.”
Barclay claims he never told Benge that Lovell was on the Trinity River on either of the days in question.
“That’s an outright lie,” Barclay said. “It makes no sense, because Sam wasn’t there. I did have a phone conversation with Zack Benge and I told him he should contact Sam in Michigan, because Sam knew we had permission to hunt on that property.”
I caught up with Lovell by phone while he was at work on the Kalamazoo. He said the phone call from Benge never came.
“The only phone call I got from TPWD was a message recording from a Leon County game warden asking me to arrange a time to come turn myself in,” Lovell said. “I never heard anything from TPWD before the charges were filed. My first knowledge of the charges being filed came when Steve called and told me I had warrants out for my arrest. That truly came as a shock. I have been in Michigan since April and didn’t set foot back in Texas until this past Labor Day weekend, when I came home to see my family.”
This isn’t Lovell’s first run in with TPWD game wardens on the Trinity River. In 2007, he, Barclay and a Lufkin hunter were charged in another case in which an alligator was allegedly taken by illegal means or methods in that the alligator was shot while in public water. Those charges were dismissed as well.
In hindsight, Lovell said he is relieved to be in the clear once again.
“I hate this for everyone involved,” he said. “I’m ready to put this behind me and get on with my life.”
Lovell’s attorney, David Hammit of Normangee, says he was glad to see his client cleared in the case. However, he is disappointed with the manner in which game wardens carried out their investigation.
“Mr. Witt did the right thing in dismissing the charges,” Hammit said in an e-mail statement. “I do not fault Mr. Witt in filing the formal information originally, as he was acting off a sworn probable cause affidavit, signed by a peace officer, that said he believed that Mr. Lovell had committed a crime. How a peace officer, in this case, came up with such a belief is beyond me.
“Further, what is even as interesting, is another sworn under oath document, a Non-Consent Affidavit, signed by Michael Brown, which in addition to stating that Sam Lovell didn’t have permission to hunt, fish, or enter; it goes on to state that the signor wishes to have criminal charges filed against, in this case, Sam Lovell,” Hammit added. “As mentioned, both instruments, furnished to Mr. Witt, are sworn to under oath. It would be very interesting to discover how or why Mr. Brown had personal knowledge that Sam Lovell was present on his property, when obviously he was in Michigan at the time.”
Phone calls to Brown were unreturned at press deadline.
“This whole situation has been quite frustrating for Mr. Lovell,” Hammit added. “Not only has it been expensive for him in legal fees, it has directly affected him economically as far as sponsorship and has damaged his reputation. It is somewhat disturbing and unfortunate that absolutely nothing will happen to the public servant or servants that created this mess for Sam.”
When asked if TPWD would issue another press release to its plump media market clearing Lovell’s name, Cox said that probably won’t happen.
“Charges filed are a public record,” Cox said via e-mail. “The decision to dismiss a complaint is up to a prosecutor, and in my view, it would be up to the prosecutor to announce that if he or she wanted to do so.”
TPWD executive director Carter Smith reiterated the stance taken by the agency’s news and information branch.
“While I regret that he was ever brought into this, as he clearly was found to be out of state and not present at the time of the alleged offense, it is ultimately up to the County Attorney to issue anything further on this matter,” Smith said via e-mail. “The case is in his hands, and we will respect his jurisdiction and decisions about what to release or not release as this matter progresses.”
Lacking that news release, some media outlets continue to report Lovell as a defendant in the case. –Matt Williams