Poacher from Smithfield may have bagged a regrettable first for state
A Fayette County man is believed to be the first person in Pennsylvania to be convicted by a jury of poaching an American black bear.
Jurors found Joseph John Swaney, 39, of 263 Outcrop Road, Smithfield, guilty of unlawful killing and taking of big game following a one-day trial on Monday before Senior Judge Gerald R. Solomon.
“As far as we know, this is the first poaching case ever to go to jury trial,” said Travis Lau, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Swaney is to be sentenced by Solomon at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Gene Grimm, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Swaney, said the case marks the first time he has seen a poaching charge go to trial. In most instances, defendants plead guilty, he said.
“Most hunters are so embarrassed by the fact they illegally harvested big game, they simply don't go to trial,” Grimm said.
Neither Swaney nor defense attorney Mary Campbell Spegar could be reached for comment on Friday.
In a criminal complaint, Wildlife Conservation Officer Brandon C. Bonin said Swaney told him he killed the bear at 3:50 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2012, when it wandered into his backyard garden.
A man called the commission to report that Swaney had bragged of the kill and had photos of the dead bear on his cellphone, court records show, and Bonin questioned Swaney on Sept. 13, 2012.
“Immediately after beginning my search of Swaney's backyard, I located two marijuana plants in a plastic container, as well as hair and paws from a black bear,” Bonin wrote in the complaint. “At that time, Swaney confessed to killing a black bear ... and also to growing the marijuana.”
Bonin found the bear's head in a stream near Swaney's house, according to court records. The bear carcass was recovered from a friend's freezer.
Grimm said the marijuana charge was dismissed in district court as part of a tentative plea offer. Remaining terms of the plea deal called for Swaney to lose his hunting license for five years and pay a maximum fine of $3,000 and $1,500 in restitution, according to court documents.
But the poaching charge went to trial when Swaney rejected the offer. Jurors were not told about the plants, which were tested by a police crime lab and confirmed to be marijuana.
Grimm said Swaney attempted to explain his actions by claiming the bear threatened schoolchildren who were exiting a bus.
“He went into his house, he took his dog in the house, he spent time in the house locating a gun and ammunition, and when he came back out, the bear was still in the garden,” Grimm said. “Obviously, there was no danger to anyone, if he would have gone in the house and locked the door.”
Grimm acknowledged bear attacks occur, but he said the commission had not received any complaints about the bear Swaney shot. It had not been identified as a nuisance bear, he said, and likely was just passing through the area.
“In addition, he (Swaney) tried to make the claim the bear had an old arrow wound and the meat was not good, but he took the time to quarter the bear and put it in the freezer, so the meat had value and wasn't spoiled,” Grimm said.
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.