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DNA Compels Plea In Iowa Turkey Poaching Case

December 4, 2007

Poachers beware; the same technology used to prove the guilt or innocence of a person based on DNA evidence has now been used to convict a poacher in an Iowa court of law.

The case began on March 26, 2007, with an anonymous tip that led conservation officer Craig Roberg to a Decatur County home on April 4. Roberg seized five packages of what appeared to be wild turkey breast meat from a freezer while executing a search warrant. The owner of the meat, Mike Jones, claimed it was domestic turkey meat in his freezer. Officer Roberg believed otherwise.

This is not the first time Jones has been in court facing turkey poaching charges. In 1993, and along with his brother, Jerry, he was acquitted on reasonable doubt in a similar case involving the origin of turkey meat in their possession. The science just was not yet there to prove the case.

While working the present case, Roberg contacted Dr. Karen Mock, a conservation geneticist with the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, who had been working with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to build a national database of wild turkey DNA. The database consists of nearly 2,000 samples contributed by hunters and game managers, primarily from eastern states - Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and, to a lesser extent, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

This sample collection originally developed to identify subspecies boundaries and to aid in translocation planning and management, is also useful for identifying the source of suspected poaching samples, such as those in the Jones case. Unfortunately, Iowa was not well represented in this database. Roberg, however, enlisted his coworkers in collecting nearly 80 reference samples from locations near the suspected poaching site in Iowa. These samples were critical in identifying the source of the samples in Jones' freezer.

Decatur County Attorney Lisa Jeanes told the defense attorney the county was planning to test turkey DNA to determine if it was a wild bird or a domestic and asked the defense if they were willing to discuss a plea. The defendant, recalling the 1993 case, declined.

The Utah State University lab is primarily a research lab, so work on the case had to be fit in among other projects, but officer Roberg accepted the time constraints. His patience paid off. Testing took months. Once the tissue samples arrived in Utah, Dr. Mock took extra care to track samples through a chain of custody form. To extract the DNA, she set up a double blind system so the lab technician would not know which sample is which They compare the test results to the reference samples from Iowa and other places in the eastern US.

"You go a long way in the lab, not knowing how the work is progressing, and then at the end you get the results in five minutes," Mock said. In this case, the samples taken from Jones' freezer showed a strong association with wild turkeys, and specifically wild turkeys from southern Iowa.

Once the results were in and presented to the defendant, Jones was more than willing to accept a plea agreement and avoid going to trial. Part of the plea required the defendant to pay $1,000 in restitution that would go toward the cost of conducting the DNA analysis. If left to a judge to decide, goes the reasoning, the restitution amount could have gone much higher.

Most of the fish and wildlife violations in Decatur County never reach the courtroom, Jeanes said. Defendants usually plead guilty, so the cases do not reach her desk. "This certainly was an unusual case," Jeanes said. "Had it not been for Craig, I would not have known this technology was available for use."

"I think it's an important precedent. Wildlife markers have been used in other species, but not in wild turkeys. I think it is an important first step," Mock said. Meanwhile, the reference samples from Iowa have been added to the national wild turkey DNA database, significantly lowering the cost of analysis in any future poaching cases from this area.

"It's a database that's growing all the time and that's the kind of database it is going to take to nail these cases," Mock said.

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