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Frye: Bear poaching case a first for the state

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 7:22 p.m.

Pennsylvania's sporting community recently saw a first.

Last week, Joseph Swaney of Smithfield was sentenced after earlier being found guilty of shooting a black bear out of season. He was assessed a $1,000 fine, ordered to pay restitution costs of $1,500, lost his right to buy a hunting license for five years and was given one year's probation.

What's unusual is where his case was heard.

Most poaching cases are handled at the local level, with the commission's wildlife conservation officer handling the prosecution and the district justice rendering a judgment. That's what was going to happen in this case until Swaney backed out of a plea agreement.

Instead, he said he wanted — and got — a jury trial in Fayette County's court of common pleas.

“As far as I know, it's the first time we've ever had a jury trial on a strictly game law case in the commonwealth,” said Tom Fazi, a commission information and education supervisor.

Travis Lau, spokesman for the commission in Harrisburg, agreed. A search of historical records found no other poaching law violations that went to a jury.

“We don't know of any other cases like it,” Lau said.

Swaney shot the bear last Sept. 7. Wildlife conservation officer Brandon Bonin received a tip about the case and went to investigate. He found the bear's paws and some of its hair at Swaney's residence. Further investigation uncovered 91 pounds of meat and bones at the home of another man, Justin McNamara, also of Smithfield.

Swaney gave a statement saying he shot the bear after it entered his garden, Bonin said. Bonin also said he gave the meat to McNamara, Bonin said.

Both men entered into plea deals. McNamara went through with his, paid a $1,000 fine and lost his license privileges for three years.

Swaney was represented at no cost by an attorney from the public defender's office, and an assistant district attorney ran the prosecution.

“At trial, he claimed that when he shot the bear he was defending the children of the neighborhood,” Bonin said. “Obviously that didn't work. The (assistant DA) was able to shoot that full of holes.”

If nothing else, it was a case for the record books.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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