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Local prosecutor awarded for work on wildlife crimes

A Southern Oregon prosecutor was honored for her efforts holding accountable those who commit crimes against wildlife.

The Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division named Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Melissa LeRitz as its Prosecutor of the Year for her “ability to prosecute any fish and wildlife case that comes to her office” and her “integral role in helping combat wildlife crime.”

LeRitz said Wednesday that she’s spent five years at the District Attorney’s office honing her expertise in wildlife and poaching cases, but the greatest honor was that the local OSP troopers she works with took the time to nominate her.

“To have your team behind it means a lot,” LeRitz said.

The award to LeRitz, issued Dec. 4, includes framed wildlife artwork that was provided as part of a collaboration with the Oregon Hunters Association, said Mindy McCartt, OSP communications director.

“We strive to make it appropriate for Oregon wildlife and habitat, which our wildlife enforcement officers and court prosecutors team up to protect,” McCartt said.

OSP called out LeRitz for her work in 2019. Among the most notable wildlife cases LeRitz prosecuted that year was an October poaching of a trophy-class buck within Ashland city limits.

The poacher, Dustin Scott McGrorty of Riddle, was ordered to pay nearly $9,000 in fines after pleading guilty to charges that included weapon use, unlawfully taking a deer and hunting within a prohibited area, admitting that he fired a shot that went through the buck and struck the front of a house in the 600 block of Thornton Way.

LeRitz declined to discuss any pending wildlife cases, but she described the McGrorty case as “definitely the biggest one that I’ve done to completion” in her five years handling wildlife cases.

“A lot of responsible hunters just want the rules to be followed so that they can continue hunting,” LeRitz said.

Jackson County Circuit Court records and Mail Tribune archives show that LeRitz has balanced the wildlife cases with a caseload of crimes that has included vehicular homicide and arson. LeRitz is also prosecuting all of the looting cases involving evacuated homes during the Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

Getting familiar with wildlife law, however, took effort and coaching from a predecessor at the DA’s office.

“It’s not something that every attorney in the county deals with,” LeRitz said. “It was something that I had to learn.”

Another challenge, according to LeRitz, is that people — including potential jurors — are less familiar with wildlife crimes.

“Outside of the hunting community, they can seem less important than a murder,” LeRitz said, adding that OSP works to show the seriousness of protecting wildlife and conserving fish.

LeRitz described prosecuting wildlife crimes as a team effort. She wouldn’t have the wildlife cases to prosecute without fish and wildlife troopers on patrol in wildlands checking for tags or investigating witness reports of hunters in prohibited areas.

“The work I do is in conjunction with the troopers,” LeRitz said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.