NEW PORT RICHEY — Ed O'Toole's 13-year-old son discovered it Wednesday evening, just beyond their property in Hidden Lake Estates:
The body of a baby deer — its hide ripped, its legs cut up, its tiny skull cast away in the pine needles, its guts eaten by the birds. Hanging from a tree was a pair of panty hose filled with deer fur.
"The deer was a baby, it was a baby," said O'Toole. "My son was hysterical."
The discovery triggered a confrontation, accusations of gunfire and conflicting stories as the debate over a deer hunt at the Hidden Lake airport took an ugly turn.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the matter.
Airport authorities want to kill deer that wander on their property and possibly endanger pilots on the runway. That measure is allowed under a state rule that lets airports take out wildlife that poses a safety hazard to planes.
But O'Toole and a number of other residents want to stop the killing, saying the airport hasn't exhausted other means of controlling the large deer population, such as building a fence around the runway.
On Wednesday, O'Toole went to investigate after his wife called him about his son's discovery. He saw a pickup truck parked on the airport property near his land.
O'Toole is a trophy hunter himself and feeds deer on his property, though he has taught his sons never to kill fawns or mother deer. One of the airport's most outspoken critics, he said he believed at that time one of the airport's hunters had shot the fawn and thrown it near his property line to taunt him.
So he called Ed Cason, who is heading up the hunt on the airport's behalf.
"I was upset and I wasn't the nicest person in the world," O'Toole said. "I said you better get out here right now."
Cason came out, O'Toole said, and denied any one on his team had shot the fawn. The two men had a heated exchange, said O'Toole.
While they were standing there, Cason called a game warden with Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission with a complaint of his own, according to spokesman Gary Morse.
Morse said Cason reported that while his team was hunting, someone had fired upon them. Cason could not be reached for this story.
"He said pellets had rained down on him," said Morse. "They were legally hunting on the airport property. Everything he has done has been by the book."
O'Toole called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office because he said he believed his family was being threatened.
But Morse said the airport is being victimized: He said someone had vandalized the airport's gates and also put corn out by the hangars.
"There are verbal and physical attempts to sabotage the airport authority," he said. "Anybody who shoots onto or over someone's property is guilty of trespassing, armed trespassing, which is a felony. If caught, there are serious consequences for people attempting to undermine the airport's attempts to protect human life."
Morse said he was told that airport officials had contacted nearby residents before hunting.
But O'Toole, whose property adjoins the airport's, said no one ever called him. He said Cason told him they had shot only one larger deer.
John Edwards, the secretary of Airport Investors Inc., did not return a phone message Thursday.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.