Thursday, June 21, 2018
News Roundup

Hunter pleads guilty to killing endangered Florida panther

From atop his tree stand, Todd "Scuttlebutt" Benfield could see the tawny fur of a Florida panther prowling through the underbrush. Benfield, a bow hunter looking for deer, knew that panthers eat deer.

So he aimed an arrow at the endangered animal and let fly.

"I shot the Florida panther," Benfield, 45, of Naples, admitted in a written statement this week, "because I thought the Florida panther was competing and interfering with my hunting."

Benfield came back to the site the next day with a buddy and dragged the carcass 50 feet into the woods, trying to hide his crime. He even dismantled his tree stand. But after a three-year investigation into the 2009 death of the panther, Benfield pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Fort Myers.

"I was wrong to have shot and killed a Florida panther," he wrote in his signed apology, included with his plea agreement. "Killing the Florida panther was not a solution and I am sorry for what I did."

Benfield is only the third person since the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 to ever be successfully prosecuted for killing the state animal, which has been classified as endangered for 50 years.

According to his plea agreement, he faces 30 days behind bars, three years of probation, a $5,000 fine and a requirement he donate $5,000 to a wildlife-related charity, plus 200 hours of community service. He also cannot hunt in Florida or any other state for three years. He had to forfeit his bow, arrows and tree stand and make a public apology. No sentencing date has been set yet.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who led the investigation, did not respond to repeated requests for details on how they caught Benfield. However, his written apology offers some clues.

On Oct. 8, 2009, he was deer-hunting in a rural area of Golden Gate Estates, a failed development in Collier County, with a Matthews Solocam Switchback XT bow when he shot the panther with a three-bladed Muzzy Broadhead arrow.

Although he moved the body the next day, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission employee discovered the carcass on Oct. 10 — the day Benfield dismantled his tree stand.

On Oct. 12, a federal investigator questioned Benfield about the death of the panther, now officially identified as Uncollared Florida Panther 128.

"During the interview, I lied about having anything to do with the killing of the Florida panther," Benfield wrote. However, state and federal investigators returned with a search warrant for his house and car "where they collected evidence of my crime."

Then, on Nov. 30, 2009, "a federal search warrant was served on my person for my DNA," Benfield wrote. What happened between then and Friday, however, is not mentioned in his statement.

This is not Benfield's first violation of game laws. Collier County court records show he has been fined twice for violating state hunting rules. He has also been previously arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.

Benfield's wife, Tonja, reached at the couple's home, said her husband could not comment on the case, and his attorney, Donald Day, did not return a reporter's phone call.

Panthers, which once roamed the entire Southeast, are now largely confined to the swamps, pastures and forests of Florida's southern tip. Although the population had dwindled to about 30 a few decades ago, about 100 now prowl what's left of the wilderness in South Florida.

Benfield's crime is only the most violent example of a decades-long conflict between the causes of hunting and panther conservation. In his apology, Benfield wrote that one reason he's sorry for what he did is because of "the negative publicity that it may have brought to hunting."

He's right about that, said Laurie Macdonald of Defenders of Wildlife. "This gives hunting a bad name," she said. Even though the panthers are hunting deer like the hunters, she said, "You don't whack a competitor. We should all work together to make sure the deer population is healthy enough for both."

The first, and most famous, Floridian to ever be charged with killing a panther was James Billie, then chief of the Seminole tribe. Billie shot and skinned a panther in 1983, saying he did it as part of a religious ritual. He was acquitted by a jury after his attorney raised questions about panther genetics.

The second man hauled into court was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker who in 1985 said he shot a panther because he feared it might climb his tree stand and kill him. Although he pleaded guilty, the judge, an avid hunter, refused to put him in jail and instead sentenced him to probation.

Last year, a Georgia deer hunter pleaded guilty to killing a panther that had roamed so far from South Florida that it had crossed the state line in 2008. That deer hunter was sentenced to two years of probation, during which he could not hunt anywhere, and fined $2,000.

There are at least three other panther deaths since 2009 that remain under investigation.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

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