Joe Frater and Chris Stone were on their way to social media stardom in the elite world of trophy deer hunting.
The two law enforcement officers — Stone is an investigator for the Amador County district attorney in California; Frater is a corrections officer at a local prison — regularly showed off their trophies from just a few years of hunting with bows and arrows in the Sierra foothills of Northern California.
They posed with impressive, mature bucks that they somehow managed to pull from a place known mostly for its scrawny deer with tiny racks. The men appeared on hunting websites, podcasts and YouTube videos, and they had sponsorships with companies that sell hunting equipment.
Along the way, California wildlife officers were beginning to grow skeptical of the steady feed of social media posts featuring Frater and Stone. Most of their kills looked like the bruisers that celebrity hunters brag about on hunting shows — that is, extraordinary.
What unfolded next over five months in 2019 could be an episode of “CSI,” as wardens undertook a complex operation with covert stakeouts, DNA evidence, aerial surveillance and vehicle tracking devices — tactics that the men’s attorneys say went too far in upholding California’s stringent and complex hunting rules.
From the beginning, investigators thought the two archery hunters may have been cheating. They suspected Frater and Stone had lured in the deer using bait, a practice that’s considered unsporting. It’s also illegal in California.
“The caliber/type of deer is very rare for a legal CA hunter to harvest, especially with only using archery equipment,” game warden David Moskat wrote in a 2019 search warrant. “I have known many archery and rifle hunters who would be satisfied to harvest even one of this caliber of buck in a lifetime of legal hunting in California.”
In California — and elsewhere around the country — breaking the hunting rules can be a criminal offense. Violators can face misdemeanor charges for breaking even the most technical rules in a thick rule book dedicated to hunting and wildlife protection.
In 2010, one of the biggest names in the hunting world, rock musician Ted Nugent, showed himself hunting over bait as he killed a small “spike” buck on an episode of his “Spirit of the Wild” hunting program on the Outdoor Channel.
Nugent — who often hunts in Texas, where using bait is legal — pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors: illegally baiting a deer, and failing to have a hunting permit signed by a government official after a kill.
To figure out the methods used by Frater and Stone, a team of officers went on their own hunt, using the same tactics as any elite law enforcement agency would.
They used a surveillance plane to trail the men from overhead. They set out motion-activated cameras. They put tracking devices on their pickups. They took samples from the guts left behind from kills and swabbed the bed of Frater’s pickup for deer blood and hair for DNA evidence. They combed through their text messages and tallied who they called and the minutes they were on the phone.
After weeks of stakeouts both day and night, they raided the two men’s homes, going room to room, rifling through drawers, freezers and closets, seizing deer-head trophies, archery equipment, cellphones, frozen venison, computers, trail camera memory cards and taxidermy and butcher receipts.
At Frater’s home, they seized salt licks, mineral blocks and bags of feed, the sorts of bait used to lure in deer.
When the investigation was complete, the wardens said they found enough evidence the men were hunting deer using bait. Among several other violations: failure to report harvested deer as required by law, intentionally misrepresenting the location of their kills, and trespassing.
Because of a recently enacted state law designed to punish poachers specifically targeting trophy-class deer, Stone and Frater faced special sentencing enhancements that included up to a year in jail and up to $40,000 in fines.
In the end, the California Attorney General’s Office allowed the men to sign plea bargains that included no jail time and fines nowhere near the maximum the law allows. (The state agency prosecuted the case in Amador County Superior Court, given that Stone worked for the local district attorney.)
Stone’s and Frater’s attorneys argue the Attorney General’s Office knew the state’s case was overblown, which is why the trophy enhancement was never filed. They argue that the two men didn’t deliberately intend to violate the state’s strict prohibition on hunting deer using bait.
As for the other allegations, John Holbus, Stone’s Sacramento attorney, said they were for technical and “so meritless that the Attorney General’s office declined to even file them.”
Frater’s Sacramento attorney, Candice Fields, said the amount of time and resources spent on the case were wasted on her client “who has been licensed since around age 13, (and) has a spotless record.”
“My client and I are both disappointed that significant and precious law enforcement resources were expended on what the California Attorney General’s Office obviously deemed was an overblown investigation based upon the limited code violations which were ultimately charged,” she said in an email.
“If violent crime investigations receive less funding than did this investigation, the public really should be left wondering about the prioritization of how their tax dollars are spent.”
Holbus said that when he met with Fields and the attorney general’s prosecutor to go over the case, the seasoned criminal law attorneys were stunned at the number of DNA tests the wardens had ordered done.
“There were more DNA tests done than all three of us had seen in our careers put together,” Holbus said.
But some say that given what the wardens uncovered during their investigation, the punishment wasn’t severe enough — the latest example of what they say is a troubling trend.
“Judges, courts never take wildlife cases as seriously as drug offenses or violent crimes — they just don’t,” said former federal wildlife officer Michael Sutton, past president of the California Fish and Game Commission, the agency sets state hunting laws.
“There’s a big need to educate both prosecutors and judges about the serious nature of these offenses.”
The Attorney General’s Office said in an emailed statement that prosecutors were “unable to discuss charging analysis.”
Social media posts become evidence
Stone and Frater may have been the victims of their own desire, like millions of other people, to boast about their accomplishments and build their brand on social media. That’s exactly where the case began in August 2019, according to a pair of Department of Fish and Wildlife search warrants unsealed at The Sacramento Bee’s request in Amador County.
Moskat, the game warden, wrote in his affidavit that he was suspicious of Frater and Stone based on what he saw on their Instagram and Facebook accounts.
Stone had posted a picture from that year’s hunting season of him holding the antlers of a buck he’d shot with his bow. The deer didn’t have an orange piece of paper tied around its antlers, a state-issued “deer tag.” The state issues those permits to deer hunters, allowing them to kill one deer per tag. California hunters are allowed up to two deer tags each season.
A 2013 YouTube hunting video featuring Stone also showed him posing with three giant bucks that didn’t have tags on their antlers, Moskat wrote.
The law says hunters are required to “immediately” write on the form the date, time and exact location where the deer was killed, and tie it to the animal’s antlers. The purpose of the rule is to help prevent hunters from bagging too many deer or shooting them in areas where they’re not allowed to hunt.
Many hunters snap a photo with their kill just before they tag it, even though it’s technically a crime under the state’s strict rules.
Stone’s attorney, Holbus, said that’s what his client did when he posed for the cameras. He tagged the bucks moments later before they were moved from the site, Holbus said.
But for Moskat, it was a sign that Stone and his hunting partner were willing to bend or break the state’s hunting rules. He used it as his first example in his affidavit to convince the judge that he had probable cause to conduct his search.
Moskat wrote that he started digging into the online system that hunters use to report their kills after a successful hunt.
Frater and Stone had an impressive track record. Between 2012 and 2019, the men had reported killing around two dozen deer, most of them trophy-class bucks with large antlers and multiple tines and points.
But Moskat wrote that Stone didn’t report to the state at least three of the deer he killed and posed with in social media pictures and on the YouTube video. Moskat also pulled the deer tags the men had filed with the state. Moskat noted the men didn’t write down exactly where they’d killed the buck on the tags, instead merely noting a general landmark like a road or a ridgetop, according to the affidavit.
Holbus, Stone’s attorney, said this is another example of the highly technical violations the men were accused of committing, akin to how almost all drivers drive at least a little bit over the speed limit.
“If the rules were strictly enforced by the text of the law only, then every single hunter could be arrested on every single successful hunt,” Holbus said.
Capt. Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the wardens at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, said when it comes to this case, those technical distinctions mattered. In the game wardens’ minds, he said, it showed the two didn’t want to formally alert law enforcement to exactly where they killed a buck while trespassing or if they shot it over a pile of apples.
Around the time Moskat was digging into Frater’s and Stone’s hunting records, Moskat found evidence of baiting by looking at Frater’s small parcel from a neighbor’s place. Moskat wrote that he spotted “several heavily used deer trails,” “salt/mineral blocks” used to attract deer, bird feeders, bales of feed and partially buried buckets placed near motion-activated trail cameras.
It’s not clear in the search warrants whether Frater was hunting on his property, but regardless of if he was, intentionally feeding large wildlife in California is a crime. It became another piece of evidence Moskat used to convince the judge he had probable cause to conduct searches that eventually led to the wildlife officers getting permission to track the hunters’ vehicles, read through their text messages, phone call logs, search their homes and seize their property.
What the wardens uncovered
In September 2019, the wardens received the court’s approval to put tracking devices on Frater’s and Stone’s pickups, which they monitored for several weeks during the middle of the state’s deer hunting season.
At one area that Frater frequented, Moskat wrote that he found a pile of around 100 apples next to a trail camera.
At another site Frater visited, one of Moskat’s fellow wardens allegedly found a tree stand that hunters use to shoot deer from above. A pile of apples and a salt or mineral block was placed nearby, Moskat wrote.
The wardens set out motion-activated surveillance cameras at the site, which later showed Frater carrying a bow and wearing a climbing harness, a sign that he was hunting, according to the affidavits. Meanwhile, a plane overhead was tracking Frater’s movements. The pilot saw him one day practicing with his bow before driving to go hunt at a baited site, Moskat wrote.
Stone also was being surveilled. A camera on the road outside his home took photos of him coming and going. His vehicle, which has a customized license plate that translates to “Turkey Slayer” was seen at a site where Moskat wrote he found bait pellets in front of one of Stone’s trail cameras, and a spray-painted bottle filled with “sweet smelling liquid similar to molasses” hanging from a tree.
This, Moskat alleged, was another form of attractant to lure in deer. Later, the wardens also later found plum skins and pits that they say were evidence the fruit had been intentionally placed in one of Stone’s hunting areas to lure in deer.
Moskat put out a camera at one site, which later showed Stone walking past it with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
Holbus, Stone’s attorney, said that was the only violation for which Stone ended up being charged. He said Stone hadn’t actually been hunting that day, but he had merely been going to check the memory cards on his game cameras.
“While checking on one of them, he walked through a field that was baited two months previously,” Holbus told The Bee in an email. “Mr. Stone did not think the bait, from two months earlier, was still in the field.”
Holbus said his client, who prefers to archery hunt, didn’t have any intention to shoot a deer that day and even walked up on a nice buck he didn’t shoot with his rifle.
But there was evidence that bucks had died on Stone’s baited properties, according to the affidavits. Wardens said during their stakeouts they watched as Stone hunted with friends other than Frater. Over the course of their investigation, they found four gut piles from where the hunters cleaned their kills, Moskat wrote. The warden took samples from the guts to be used as DNA evidence in the case.
In his affidavit, Moskat wrote that he believed the untagged buck Stone had posed with on social media earlier that season was likely shot over bait.
He also wrote he believed that Frater’s kills that year — two bucks and a black bear — had been targeted over bait as well.
It was enough for the judge to authorize searching the men’s trucks, homes and properties in December 2019. The Attorney General’s Office filed formal charges against the men in August in Amador County.
That same month, Stone, 41, pleaded no contest to one count of hunting over bait. He was fined $780 and placed on three-years probation along with a suspension of his hunting privileges during the probationary period.
Frater, the 38-year-old prison guard, pleaded no contest in January to two counts of hunting deer over bait. He was fined $5,000, placed on one year of informal probation and agreed to forfeit his hunting privileges for a year.
“He has accepted responsibility, paid a fine to one of CDFW’s wildlife conservation funds, and surrendered one of his bows which he understands will be used to raise additional conservation funds,” Fields, Frater’s attorney, told The Bee. “He is happy to support a cause so close to his heart.”
Frater remains employed at Mule Creek State Prison where he’s worked for the past seven years. A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman declined to comment on whether he’d been disciplined, citing personnel confidentiality rules.
It’s also not clear whether Stone was disciplined as a result of the case by his bosses at the Amador County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Todd Reibe declined to comment, citing the same personnel rules.
Fields said that since baiting is what’s known as a “strict liability” regulation, it means wardens don’t have to prove that a hunter intended to violate the law.
“In other words, if there are apples on the ground from a nearby tree, a hunter who otherwise legally hunts a deer within 400 yards of those apples (that’s four football fields) violates the regulation,” she said in an email. “That’s what happened here.”
Capt. Foy, the game warden spokesman, said the evidence the wardens uncovered clearly showed the men repeatedly killing big bucks over bait and then boasting of their successes, “claiming they’re legitimate and then posting them on multiple social media platforms.”
That was no accident or simple misunderstanding, Foy said.
“Not when it happens,” he said, “over and over again.”