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Deer Park man sentenced in mountain lion hunt case

MADISON — A Deer Park man who allowed another man to shoot a mountain lion in Montana using his license was fined $30,000 Tuesday, Feb. 26 in federal court and banned from hunting "worldwide" for four years.

Darren Johnson, 52, had previously pled guilty to two wildlife law misdemeanor violations in connection with allegedly registering a mountain lion in January 2017 that had been shot and killed by another man in the hunting party.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Graber called Johnson the "tip of spear" in the offense. Johnson's dogs had treed the adult male mountain lion and he gave his .223 caliber scoped rifle to David Johnson, no relation, to shoot it.

It was the second time that Darren Johnson had been caught illegally hunting mountain lions. During a 2013 hunt in Colorado, he shot a mountain lion and had another man tag it, Graber said.

"He's had a pattern of illegally hunting mountain lions and a pattern of lying about hunting violations," Graber told Magistrate Stephen Crocker.

Johnson orchestrated a cover up among the other members of the Montana hunting group to lie to a grand jury about who shot the mountain lion, Graber said.

Johnson, who owns a construction company, could have been charged with a felony wildlife violation, Graber said, considering his total involvement in the illegal hunt.

"A four-year hunting ban is a pretty significant sentence for someone who likes to hunt. But he's demonstrated complete disregard for hunting laws and the criminal justice system," Graber said.

Graber asked Crocker to impose a sentence that sends a message to hunters that they are not "chumps" if they follow the rules, but face consequences if they don't.

Johnson told Crocker that he was "very sorry," and initially, didn't understand the severity of his conduct, but does now.

"I'll never be in this situation like this again," he said.

In addition to the four-year ban on hunting and trapping or accompanying anyone engaged in those activities, Johnson forfeited his 2012 F250 pickup truck, three GPS tracking dog collars, a rifle, a radio, a mountain lion skull, and rights to a life-sized mount of a bobcat fighting a mountain lion taken during the 2013 Colorado hunt.

David Johnson, 31, of Barnes, Wis., took home the mountain lion in Darren Johnson's truck after the latter registered it with Montana wildlife authorities claiming it was his kill.

Federal authorities began investigating the circumstances of the hunt and in April 2018, Darren Johnson falsely told a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent that he killed the mountain lion and David Johnson had not, Graber said.

Two other members of the hunting group, Steven Reindahl, 55, and Robert Peters, 53, both of Turtle Lake, were summoned to testify before a grand jury in Madison in June 2018. Days before their appearance, Darren Johnson had the four hunters meet at Peters' residence to discuss their testimony.

If they "stick to their story," that Darren Johnson shot the mountain lion, they would be okay because the authorities would have no proof otherwise, Graber said, quoting Darren Johnson.

Instead, Graber had talked to Dan Johnson, Darren's uncle, who hosted the mountain lion hunters at his ranch near Mosby, Mont. Dan Johnson "told the truth" about the hunt, Graber said.

Believing that Dan Johnson wouldn't cooperate with authorities, both Reindahl and Peters lied to the grand jury about who shot the mountain lion. On their drive home from Madison they learned they had perjured themselves, Graber said.

They subsequently testified before a grand jury that they saw David Johnson shoot the mountain lion that Darren Johnson tagged.

David Johnson, whose hunting license became valid one day after he shot the mountain lion, pleaded guilty to hunting without a valid permit, a misdemeanor.

On Tuesday, he was fined $25,000, banned from hunting or trapping for three years and forfeited the cape mount of the mountain lion he unlawfully shot.

Crocker said taking away hunting rights, "is the stake through the heart," punishment to those who "live to hunt."

Crocker acknowledged that the penalty hurts those who love hunting but, it's "supposed to hurt." It shows violators that the government can take away a privilege they hold dearly when they knowingly violate the law, he said.

The day after Johnson shot the Montana mountain lion, Peters shot a bobcat while pointing a rifle through a rolled down truck window. He was fined $5,000 and banned from hunting for two years for lying to a grand jury.

Crocker imposed the same sentence on Reindahl for lying to a grand jury.