A large room in Nicola Alfeo’s home in rural Kennerdell, Penn., is devoted to mementos of his hunting exploits. Full mounts of wild turkeys and a cougar strike lifelike poses in this “trophy room,” where antlered heads of various wild ungulates protrude from the walls, surrounded by photos of Alfeo posed with his deceased quarry.
Last January, federal and Pennsylvania state game officers picked through Alfeo’s collection, walking out with photos and a mule deer mount, among other things, connecting the 40-year-old pizza maker with his one-time guide, alleged “serial” poacher Dean Ruth. Ruth is suspected of ridding his neck of the woods around Seeley Lake of trophy game. This material persuaded a federal jury in Missoula last month to convict Ruth and his 25-year-old nephew Gale M. Ruth, Jr. of felony wildlife violations.
Alfeo’s Oct. 9 testimony gave a taste of what will be revealed when Montana prosecutors open a separate 25-count poaching case against Dean Ruth, himself the son of a notorious and outspoken Pennsylvania poacher, the late Gale “Tense” Ruth. Dean’s wife Renita also faces a slew of charges in the case.
The law crashed the Ruths’ world on Nov. 15 when officers with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) raided the family compound of dilapidated trailers and seized remnants of more than 100 game animals, including bear, deer, elk and moose. Also seized were stacks of photos of trophy animals, hunting tags, hides, mounts, skulls—some with names and dates penciled on them—and a silencer, along with two rifles modified to accommodate the felonious piece of contraband. The haul led to state charges in Pennsylvania and Montana, as well as the federal case that went to trial last month in Missoula. A trial date in the complex Montana state case has yet to be set; attorneys are still wrangling over the legality of the Nov. 15 search.
But whatever the ultimate conclusion to the state’s poaching case, “Deano” and “Galey” Ruth already are looking at prison time when they return to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s courtroom on Feb. 6 for sentencing on the federal charges. Following the Oct. 10 jury verdict, they were stripped of their weapons and hunting privileges—on the very eve of elk season. But more significantly, last month’s trial opened a window onto the Ruths’ insular world. Court records and testimony suggest poaching is an inter-generation pastime for the Ruths, who allegedly kill wildlife by whatever illegal means available: using silencers and spotlights; stalking after dark, out-of-season and on ATVs in designated roadless areas; killing over the limit and without tags; and encouraging their underage home-schooled children to hunt.
Alfeo, who testified after pleading guilty to reduced charges, had traveled to Montana in October 1998 to hunt with the Ruths. He told the jury how family members woke him one night while he slept in their Seeley Lake trailer, asking if he wanted to shoot a bear. He got up to see a bear spotlighted outside the front door, noshing on a pile of rotting meat. Alfeo shot the animal and took it home for mounting and display in his trophy room. On that trip he also shot a pronghorn buck and a mule deer buck at Dean’s direction. Because he drove these animals back home to Pennsylvania, the crimes triggered the Lacey Act, a century-old federal statute punishing the interstate transport of poached wildlife. As the enablers of Alfeo’s illegal hunting, for which he paid the Ruth family at least $2,300, Dean and Gale were charged with conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and additional felony counts, one each for the poached deer and antelope. The jury acquitted Gale, who did the dirty work of field-dressing and skinning Alfeo’s kills, of the count stemming from the pronghorn.
Wildlife crimes are hard to prove, but prosecutors’ jobs can be facilitated by poachers’ fondness for photographing their feats, investigators say. Among the piles of material hauled out of the Ruth home by the FWP team led by Capt. Jeff Darrah was a photo of the pronghorn, recently killed and pictured with the apparent agents of its demise: Dean Ruth and a grinning Sicilian immigrant, who investigators later learned was Nicola Alfeo. It was this discovery that prompted Alan Scott of the Pennsylvania Game Commission to knock on Alfeo’s door last January. A framed enlargement of the same pronghorn photo was mounted on Alfeo’s trophy room wall.
Prosecutors repeatedly displayed this image at the federal trial to demonstrate the Ruths’ alleged conspiracy to illegally use Montana as a hunting playground. “This case is about providing poaching opportunities for cash,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean told Ruth’s federal jury. With Alfeo covering almost all the expenses, Dean Ruth led his “client” on an eastern Montana hunting expedition, which included a stay at a block management hunting spot near Jordan known as “Basement Camp.” Dean’s paper trail—photo processing slips and FWP forms—indicate Alfeo’s mule deer and pronghorn were shot in mid-October 1998, a full week before rifle season opened that year. Other trial evidence showed the tags Alfeo bought from the Ruths were fraudulently issued and, in any case, could not be lawfully applied to any animal Alfeo shot.
“They told me what to shoot and I shot,” he testified. “I didn’t know it was illegal. That’s why I paid for the hunt.”
Technically, the bear and a lion Alfeo poached were not relevant to the federal case. But Galey’s court-appointed lawyer Melissa Harrison brought them up in her cross-examination to demonstrate Alfeo’s penchant for dishonesty.
Over Harrison’s objections, McLean exploited the door that opposing counsel opened and invited Alfeo to describe the night he and the Ruths went driving on Seeley backroads with a spotlight in search of predatory wildlife. Alfeo testified Dean located a cat and locked a light on it, while Alfeo reluctantly fired a bullet into it.
“Deano said ‘shoot it.’ I didn’t want to shoot no bobcat,” he said. The cat turned out to be a cougar, and Alfeo shipped it home. In his sworn statement to Pennsylvania officers, Alfeo had falsely reported Renita shot the bear, and Galey the lion, Alfeo admitted at trial.
“I was scared,” he said under Harrison’s cross-examination.