Charges filed in deer abuse case

BROOKVILLE The Pennsylvania Game Commission Jan. 10 filed charges against two Brookville teenagers who allegedly recorded social-media videos of themselves holding down and repeatedly kicking an immobile white-tailed deer.

Charged are Alexander Brock Smith, 18, and a 17-year-old juvenile male.

Both Smith and the juvenile have been charged with two felony counts each of aggravated cruelty to animals-torture and aggravated cruelty to animals-causing serious bodily injury or death, misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals and tamper with/fabricate physical evidence, summary counts of drive or disturb game and taking/possessing game or wildlife, and more summary counts related to hunting violations.

Smith is facing an additional felony charge of corruption of minors.

Smith was arraigned Jan. 10 and released on $50,000 unsecured bail. The juvenile will be prosecuted in juvenile court.

The alleged Nov. 30, 2019, incident for which Smith and his accomplice were charged has been seen by thousands of people worldwide who viewed the videos.

The Game Commission became aware of the incident soon after the videos were posted, when one viewer shared a video to the agency's Facebook page.

The agency immediately launched an investigation.

Each defendant was interviewed as part of the investigation and confirmed they were hunting together Nov. 30, 2019, in an enclosed tree stand on property Smith's family owns in Beaver Township, Jefferson County.

The juvenile shot and wounded a buck, then missed with a follow-up shot.

The deer was immobilized, video was taken, then shared through the messaging app Snapchat.

One recipient of the video saved it to his phone and contacted the Game Commission, and his phone, as well as the defendants' phones, were seized for forensic analysis.

Criminal complaint provides details

The Game Commission said in the criminal complaint Smith and the juvenile boy were depicted in the video stomping on and kicking the deer's throat and legs. The Game Commission said the video also showed the juvenile boy ripping off one of the deer's antlers, the complaint said.

The juvenile told the Game Commission he injured the deer with a single shot from a tree stand. Smith wasn't hunting and was unarmed, the complaint said.

The juvenile and Smith descended from the tree stand after the juvenile shot the deer and approached the animal, according to the complaint. The juvenile said he then tried to fire a killing shot from several yards away, but missed.

The juvenile told officers he and Smith possessed no other live ammunition or a knife in the vicinity, so they tried to kill the deer by kicking and stomping on it, the complaint said. Smith can be heard in the video instructing the juvenile to "take hold of the wounded deer's antlers," one of which was broken from the animal's skull, but still attached by the hide.

The deer appeared to be temporarily paralyzed and was seen on video struggling with each kick, while Smith stood on the animal's back leg, the Game Commission charged.

The boys both said the deer got up and ran away after the assault, the complaint said.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said the deer couldn't be located after the incident. Investigators searched the area and used dogs, to no avail.

"We did find other deer that had either been shot or road kills that were in there and unrecovered, but we didn't come up with any evidence that contradicted what they told us, that the deer had run off," Lau said.

The juvenile said Smith contacted him later that day about the "social media outcry" and instructed the juvenile to delete the videos from his phone, the complaint said.

In an interview in early December, Smith admitted recording the events and sending the video through the Snapchat app on his personal cell phone. Both Smith and the juvenile surrendered their cell phones, as well as the antler taken from the deer that the juvenile had kept, the complaint said.

Thorough investigation took time

Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said the filing of charges brings to an end a thorough investigation about an incident that has drawn much attention and public outrage.

Burhans said posts about the incident on the agency's Facebook page have made clear the contempt hunters hold for the actions depicted on the video.

"Hunters care deeply about wildlife," Burhans said. "It's through their decades of dedication to the outdoors that we enjoy healthy and sustainable populations of wild birds and mammals, and that those wildlife species that encounter trouble are identified and afforded additional protection.

"Hunters are taught at an early age to hunt ethically, to be respectful of the game they hunt, the property upon which they hunt and other hunters."

Burhans added, "The Game Commission's Hunter-Trapper Education program emphasizes these longstanding principles to new hunters."

Posts by followers of the Game Commission's social-media pages made it clear that many were keeping track of the case as the investigation continued.

Some expressed frustration with the length of time it took for charges to be filed, but in cases where charges likely are to be brought under the state's Game and Wildlife Code, it's important to complete a thorough investigation before filing any charges because a hearing on the charges might be held soon afterward, and the case closed permanently.

Even in this case, where there was video of an unlawful act, investigators had to determine it happened in Pennsylvania, where the Game Commission has authority to file charges, as well as collect evidence to prove the teens committed the act and posted the videos.

"It's easy to understand why people were outraged by the incident," Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners President Tim Layton said. "But the worst-case scenario would have been rushing the investigation and heading into court with a case that wasn't as strong as it could have been.

"Complicated investigations take time, and on behalf of the Board of Game Commissioners, I would like to commend the Game Commission, its Northwest Region Office and all of the game wardens who investigated the matter in cooperation with Pennsylvania State Police, local law-enforcement and the Jefferson County District Attorney's office. It's a difficult job, and you do it extremely well."

Jefferson County District Attorney Jeff Burkett also spoke of the length of time it takes to complete a thorough investigation.

"Obviously, this case has generated a large amount of public outcry," Burkett said. "People have assumed that officers have been dragging their feet when, actually, the opposite is true. They have put a lot of hard work in on this case in order to present the case for prosecution. I commend the Pennsylvania Game Commission for their efforts in this matter."

The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not release the names of minors who are charged with violations of the state Game and Wildlife Code.

The information in this report was compiled by staff members, a Pennsylvania Game Commission press release and The Derrick reporter Sarah Titley.