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Former poacher says payback is real

Lyle Smith believes he knows all too well what transpired in the fields off Hodson Road early Oct. 8, when a three-point black-tailed buck fell at the hands of poachers.

It was two, maybe three guys in their early 20s. First a lot of drinking until after midnight, when they piled into a truck for a little fun.

One guy drove, another one pointed the flashlight to freeze the buck in a rancher's field while the third did the deed, probably with a .22-caliber rifle.

"Nobody pays attention to the sound of a .22-caliber," says Smith, 64, of Grants Pass. "It's hard. Trust me, I know this stuff."

Forty-five years ago, it was Smith with the flashlight.

Smith says he was part of a small poaching ring working the lowlands around Roseburg in the early 1960s, helping take down almost a dozen animals in much the same fashion as those who killed that buck on Hodson Road.

Though Smith never did get caught, he has a message to those Hodson Road poachers and anyone else tempted to follow in their, or his, former footsteps.

You better stop perpetuating that poaching culture and you better get caught, Smith says.

It's for your own good.

The cosmic force that settles Earth's ethical scores eventually will exact its revenge upon the Hodson Road poachers, Smith says, just like it has upon him.

"We didn't get caught, but that doesn't mean I got away with it," Smith says. "There's such a thing as karma."

Divorce. An early family death. His Elmer Fudd-like futility while hunting legit. Even a shortened work career and disabled legs are facets of Smith's life he considers karmic payback for his poaching past.

And the Hodson Road poachers, who shot the deer for its large antlers and fled only with its severed head, leaving the carcass to rot? They have a sea of bad karma coming their way.

"What they did really was a heartless thing," Smith says. "Karma. If you're religious, then it's reaping what you sow. Either way, you don't get away with it. You don't really get away with anything."

Whether it's karma, kismet or the prospect of a $2,750 reward, investigators hope something forces someone to come forward with information that will solve this case.

Hoping to track the deer from its unusually long and wide set of three-point antlers, Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Jim Collom says he has no solid leads in the case.

Collom believes even a single, anonymous source could help solve the case and claim the reward, which was bolstered this week by a $2,500 pledge from the Humane Society of the United States.

But people still remain tight-lipped about deer-poaching cases, he says.

"For some reason, some people won't turn someone in for poaching because (the crime) doesn't affect them personally," Collom says. "That's what we're up against."

In 1962, silence was Smith's best defense.

New to Roseburg and working in a mill, he met a coworker named Pete, who later introduced him to his friend, Bob.

Bob, it turned out, had the poaching bug passed down to him from his father and had no qualms about continuing the family legacy.

The trio would drink Blitz-Weinhard beer until at least 12:30 a.m., then head out to the rural ranchettes around town similar to those along Hodson Road.

Pete drove the 1955 Ford four-door sedan while Smith scanned the fields with "a good, strong flashlight," he says. Bob would roll down the back window and fire away, sometimes half a dozen shots, just to drop the deer.

They'd jump out of the car, drag the deer to the road, toss it in the trunk and speed away, Smith says.

"There were always houses around, cars going by, but no one ever chased us," he says. "If someone only stopped, got a license plate, we would have gotten caught."

For two days, the deer would hang in a secure room between Smith's house and garage. Then they'd butcher it and split the meat.

"I'm ashamed now it happened," Smith says. "But it did."

His wife at the time knew. Their coworkers knew.

"I blabbed about it all the time to other friends we had, people at work, everything," Smith says. "Nobody turned us in."

Three years and about 10 deer later — plus one cow elk shot on New Year's Day in 1964 — Smith's attitudes began to change.

"Karma, something, put it in my head that it was wrong," Smith says.

So he found new friends, vowed not to break the law anymore.

But karma, he says, was just beginning.

His wife of seven years divorced him. His oldest son from that marriage died of natural causes at age 30, Smith says.

"I thought that was payback," he says.

So was the following 18 years of completely legal buck hunting.

"Eighteen seasons with a tag and a license, and I never fired a shot," Smith says. "Never once saw a legal deer to shoot at a legal time."

He remarried, stayed above-board, yet struggled through the mill layoffs and eventually retired on disability with poor ankles and knees that plague him today.

He tries to pay back the animal kingdom by helping pet shelters and sticking up for animals whenever possible.

"Something has driven me to help animals," Smith says.

Looking back, Smith believes his life would have been so much easier if he did get caught.

"It'd have been a fine of a few hundred bucks and take my license for two or three years," Smith says. "That's not much."

He just hopes he and karma have squared-up now.

"What I did was horrible," Smith says. "You never really get away with anything. Look at O.J."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.