HEBER/OVERGAARD — They thought they got away with it but the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) finally caught up with Blake R. Owens, 30, of Heber and Thomas “TJ” Purinton, 33, of Overgaard.
During an almost two-year investigation by a dedicated AZGFD Case Officer, Owens and Purinton were indicted in February 2019 by a Navajo County grand jury. Apart from the AZGFD case, the men were criminally charged in court with a range of felony and misdemeanor charges related to the poaching of big game on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and then conning hunting organizations into awarding them prizes and recognition for their ill-gotten gains.
There are multiple case numbers, some which cite Owens and Purinton as co-defendants in numerous criminal charges including the taking of big game and related fraudulent schemes and practices.
Purinton also posted photographs of the illegally taken deer on his taxidermy business social media page, promoting his business. He was charged with felony for submitting fraudulent taxidermy records in an attempt to hide illegally taken game.
According to the various indictments in court, Owens and Purinton, knowingly committed fraud by entering their game into hunting journals and record contests some of which one or both received awards, recognition and prizes.
Owens was a licensed hunting guide at the time three of the mule deer bucks were illegally killed. The Arizona Corporation Commission also lists him as the owner of Arizona Antler Buyers LLC.
Purinton was a licensed taxidermist at the time of the crimes and posted pictures of illegally taken deer that he mounted on his taxidermy social media page.
“The individuals in this case are thieves, stealing wildlife from all of us. They were motivated by greed, notoriety and personal gain,” said AZGFD Law Enforcement Branch Chief Gene Elms. “The vast majority of hunters in Arizona are law abiding citizens participating in fair chase and ethical, sustainable hunting practices.”
In December 2019, Owens and Purinton separately pleaded guilty to charges. Many of the original charges were dropped and, for the most serious felonies, the men were allowed to plead to lesser felonies.
Blake Owens has been facing seven different criminal cases in the Navajo County Court after a grand jury handed up its indictments in July 2018 and various other dates charging Owens with dozens of crimes, the least serious of which included taking, possessing and/or transporting wildlife from a closed area, in a closed hunting season, all without tags. The five separate cases each concern a different animal; they are: a 4x4 200” mule deer, a 3x3 drop tine mule deer, a 6x6 mule deer, a 5x4 velvet mule deer and a bear. The wildlife-related charges are Class 1 and Class 2 misdemeanors.
The grand jury also indicted Owens for more serious crimes including fraudulent schemes, Class 2 Felonies, and forgery, Class 4 Felonies, for allegedly conning hunting organizations into believing that he was deserving of recognition and prizes, through false claims and other false material. He also was charged with one count of each of aggravated assault on a peace officer, a Class 5 Felony, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a Class 1 Misdemeanor, according to court records.
It is alleged that Owens unlawfully poached animals, and defrauded or attempted to defraud nationally-known hunting and awards publications and organizations such as Bowhunting in Arizona Record Book Committee, The Pope and Young Club, The Boone and Crocket Club and Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, seeking recognition for trophy kills actually achieved by illegal means, like using a firearm in an archery-only area. The assault on the officer charge arose from Owen’s alleged actions against a case officer on May 31, 2018 and the contributing to the delinquency charge in December 2016.
In January 7, 2020, the cases against him resolved by way of a “global” plea agreement whereby Owens received a sentence of probation. The assault and delinquency charges were dismissed, other felonies were changed or modified and Owens pleaded guilty to one attempted fraudulent schemes charge and two crimes known as “criminal solicitation,” all Class 6 “Open” Felonies, explained below. All the other charges against him were dismissed.
Under Arizona law, a person commits criminal solicitation if he, with intent to defraud, presents or offers an “object” in a way that it appears to have and “antiquity, rarity...or value that it does not in fact possess.” It is a Class 6 Felony, the least serious of any of the felony crimes. A Class 6 “Open” Felony is a device wherein a person pleads guilty to a felony, but if he complies with all terms of probation and successfully completes it, the case is then recorded as a misdemeanor conviction.
In Owens’ case, he is on supervised probation for three years. Terms include serving six months in a county jail but, if probation is completed successfully, Owens won’t spend any time in jail. He must forfeit and surrender “all awards, documents and/or certificates” from the organizations he defrauded and must return to the awarding institutions a Mathews, Inc. Triax compound bow and a Green Stealth Cam. He must also forfeit a bear skull and deer antlers and perform 50 hours of community service.
Finally, Owens must also pay $18,724 to the Arizona Wildlife Theft Prevention Fund, various fees and assessments and a $65 probation fee every month.
Thomas Purinton, Owens’ co-defendant, also pleaded guilty to one felony and three misdemeanors. Court records suggest that prosecutors believe that Purinton was less culpable in this scheme than Owens. Purinton plead guilty to attempted fraudulent schemes, a Class 6 “Open” felony, taking wildlife without a license, taking big game during a closed season and possessing unlawfully taken game, all misdemeanors.
On December 3, 2019, Purinton was sentenced to 18 months of supervised standard probation, two days in jail with credit for time served, fines of $2,562, various fees and assessments, $65 monthly as a probation fee and he must perform 40 hours of community service. Like his cohort Owens, he must forfeit any claim to “illegally taken wildlife or parts.”
Now that the criminal cases have concluded, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has stepped in and has taken regulatory action against the men. The commission has the authority to revoke licenses and levy financial assessments against wrongdoers.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission is responsible for recovering financial damages to the state for the loss of wildlife and they also have the authority to revoke individual hunting, fishing, trapping, and guiding license based upon their conviction for violations of particular wildlife statutes.
Although the investigation began 2018, action by the AZGFD Commission wasn’t finalized until June 2020. Owens and Purinton were originally scheduled to appear before the AZGFD Commission in April 2020, however due to COVID-19 the process was delayed.
“The investigation, criminal charging and plea negotiation process for each individual investigation is unique,” say AZGFD Pinetop Regional Supervisor Chris Bagnoli. “Complex investigations take time and each individual has the right to due process to defend themselves through the legal system when charged criminally. Once we have a conviction through the local court jurisdiction we refer them to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission for a hearing regarding their potential civil liability for the loss of wildlife to the State of Arizona and for consideration of individual hunting, fishing and guide license revocation as per Arizona legal statutes,” said Bagnoli.
The commission didn’t go easy on Owens and Purinton.
It suspended their hunting, fishing and trapping license privileges for 10 years in Arizona. In addition, Arizona is a member of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact which means that the revocation applies to 48 other states.
Regarding financial assessments, Owens has been ordered to pay $18,724 restitution as part of his criminal sentence in January. As of press time, he has paid $1,997, according to AZGFD. The commission imposed its own restitution on Purinton in the amount of $6,414.
Poaching is stealing
“Poachers are thieves who steal Arizona’s most precious natural resource – wildlife!” says the AZGFD website.
“The individuals that kill wildlife unlawfully are not hunters; they are poachers that are stealing from the folks that want to see wildlife available for hunting and viewing purposes,” says Bagnoli. “Poachers that unlawfully target large older age class male animals outside of hunting seasons, like large mule deer bucks or bull elk, often do so when they are most vulnerable, including at night and during breeding seasons when they are easier to locate.”
“These individual animals are usually difficult to hunt because they are good at avoiding people and have a wary nature. They are also a small but important part of a population, because they are more fit than younger male animals and are better able to perpetuate the next generation of young animals in the population,” Bagnoli added.
For most sportsman, hunting means conservation and above all else — ethics. If a game animal is not harvested legally, without the right permit, the license, and within the guidelines of Arizona Game and Fish Department, it’s the opposite of sportsmanship.
“If this person had not been caught, the deer would have been recorded as one of the largest mule deer ever killed with a bow in Arizona,” said Jim Willems, former president of the Pope and Young Club.
To report suspected violations: Operation Game Thief is a silent witness, anti-poaching program that encourages the public to report any suspicious activity or knowledge about a poaching violation. The toll-free hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to report wildlife violations. Call 1-800-352-0700.
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