Michigan man faces poaching, weapons charges after 9 bucks found during domestic violence investigation

Conservation Officers Tyler Cole, left, and Matt Page with eight deer heads that were suspected to have been poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. (Photo: DNR)

A man is facing 15 charges from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources after nine bucks were allegedly found during a domestic violence investigation.

Justin Ernst is suspected of driving his truck through fields, shining and shooting deer. He has a 2018 DNR conviction for illegally taking or possessing whitetail deer.

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Michigan State Police spotted several deer in a Van Buren County barn while investigating a domestic violence complaint involving 33-year-old Ernst on Oct. 17.

Justin Ernst (Photo: MDOC)

The troopers contacted the DNR, who sent Conservation Officers Matt Page and Tyler Cole to the barn in Decatur. 

According to the DNR, Ernst hadn't been located by police after the domestic violence complaint. However, the homeowner gave officers permission to search.

The homeowner also told the officers that Ernst, who they believed was under the influence of methamphetamine, would stay out all night then a new buck would be in the barn in the morning, authorities said.

DNR officers found and seized five 10-point bucks and three and three 8-point bucks.

Eight of the nine sets of deer antlers suspected of being poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. (Photo: DNR)

Two days later, the DNR received a tip that Ernst had been arrested and that there was another buck in the barn, so Page returned to the home. Authorities said that he found a 9-point buck that appeared to have been shot within the past 48 hours.

Page spoke with two witnesses, the DNR said. One told him that they saw Ernst with a dead deer in the back of his vehicle earlier that month, and the other said they had found the 9-point buck that morning.

Conservation Officer Travis Dragomer interviewed Ernst while he was in jail. Ernst denied being involved and said he didn't hunt because his license is revoked.

Page Cole, Dragomer, and Conservation Officers Zach Bauer and Sgt. Steve Mooney executed a search warrant on Oct. 20. Accoridng to the DNR, they found two shotguns and a crossbow, a bloody crossbow bolt from the bed of Ernst’s vehicle, a cellphone that didn’t work, and a handheld spotlight located under the driver’s seat of Ernst’s vehicle.

Justin Ernst, 33, Decatur faces over $59,000 in reimbursement to the state, if convicted, for the suspected poaching of nine bucks in Van Buren County. (Photo: DNR)

In addition to the DNR conviction from 2018, Ernst has previous convictions for possession of methamphetamine or ecstasy, third-degree fleeing a police officer, and third offense operating a vehicle under the influence of liquor.

Because he has felonies on his record, Ernst cannot possess firearms.

He is charged with nine counts of taking game illegally, two counts of firearm possession by a felon, two felony firearms violations, one count of hunting with a revoked hunting license, and one count of applying for, or obtaining, a hunting license when ineligible.

If convicted, he faces up to $59,000 in reimbursement to the state.

"It’s a shame that this criminal ruined the chance for ethical, legal hunters to have their opportunity to take one of these trophy deer," said Lt. Gerald Thayer, of the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division. "Not only did this felon steal from the natural resource, he also damaged agriculture crops, and has been doing so for some time. The financial penalty is the minimum he should serve."

Ernst is out on bond. He is due back in court Dec. 20.