In the picture, snapped in the darkness of a Wilton vineyard, Jack Kautz crouches behind a dead buck, smiling broadly as he holds up the animal’s head by its freakishly large set of antlers.
It was a buck for the record books – with sprawling antlers about an arm’s width apart. If Kautz, 52, had been able to claim it as an official trophy, he could have added it to his long list of accomplishments detailed on the website of his family’s Lodi grape growing business, Ironstone Vineyards.
The real estate developer, who opened a CrossFit gym in Lodi, boasts in his online biography that he swam to San Francisco from Alcatraz Island as well as the width of the English Channel. It says he has competed in “over 130 races and other events,” and has climbed Kilimanjaro.
The problem, wildlife investigators say, is that he cheated when he bagged his trophy buck – shooting it two months after the state’s hunting season for blacktail deer officially ended. Such out-of-season kills are automatically disqualified for trophy hunting record books. They are also punishable by fines and jail time.
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Kautz ended up pleading no contest earlier this month to violating two of California’s hunting regulations, but not before going to great lengths to cover up his illegal acts, including having friends hide his trophy buck’s head while state Department of Fish and Wildlife investigators ran around looking for it, according to an investigative report from the department.
“This person really dug his heels in and necessitated an excessive investigation,” said Patrick Foy, a captain with the wildlife agency.
Kautz declined to comment on the case, referring messages to Joe Welch, his Sacramento attorney. Welch declined to discuss anything officers alleged Kautz did after he killed the deer.
“We’re not going to comment on any of that,” Welch said.
But Welch said Kautz had merciful intentions when he shot the massive buck – one of the biggest blacktails that the game wardens said they’d ever seen – and one that a wealthy trophy hunter might spend a small fortune to legally kill. Welch said his client killed the buck on one of his family vineyard properties near Wilton because it had a broken leg.
“It had lost substantial weight, and it was obviously going to die,” Welch said. “He did what any reasonable person would do. He killed the deer to put it out of its misery.”
Kautz pleaded no contest Dec. 19 to two misdemeanor violations of California’s stringent hunting laws. He was sentenced to two days in Sacramento County jail and placed on three years probation. Under his plea, his home and vehicles can be searched without a warrant, and he’s banned from hunting while on probation. He has to pay a $5,000 fine.
A 21-page investigative summary state wildlife officers attached to Kautz’s court file describes the great lengths he allegedly took to throw the game wardens off his trail. The wardens said he falsified his permit to kill a deer with the help of a San Joaquin County law enforcement officer. They alleged he enlisted his friends to hide the buck’s mounted head from wardens in Nevada.
The game wardens’ case began in September. Warden Sean Pirtle wrote in the investigative summary that he received a tip from someone who wanted to remain anonymous that Kautz had killed the deer illegally the year before. The tipster provided Pirtle with a photo of Kautz posing with the dead buck, with its distinct set of antlers, five points on one side, four on the other.
“The antlers of this deer were abnormally large and one of the biggest deer I have ever observed alive or dead in this part of California,” Pirtle wrote. The buck, had it been legally killed and certified by record keepers, likely would have been among the top 10 largest blacktails ever taken in North America, said experts familiar with the trophy scoring system. Its antlers would likely have put it in the running for California’s largest-ever blacktail.
Pirtle’s investigation started with the DFW’s hunting license records. He found that Kautz had reported he’d killed a buck with a rifle on Oct. 29, 2016, but he didn’t report the kill to the wildlife agency until December, two months after the deer season ended.
California’s deer hunters are required to report killing a buck to the wildlife agency within 30 days. After the season ends, deer hunters also have to inform the agency if they didn’t make a kill. Pirtle alleged that after killing the deer two months too late, Kautz tried to make it seem legal by calling the state wildlife agency and convincing an employee that the “no kill” report he’d originally made online was an accident.
Pirtle got a search warrant for Kautz’s gated home in Lodi. There, wardens logged onto a computer in a spare bedroom and found a file marked “12/16” containing digital pictures of Kautz posing with the dead buck similar to the one passed along by the informant. The photos, taken on an iPhone, had a digital date stamp of Dec. 14, Pirtle wrote in his report.
In the same room, Pirtle found a trophy record entry form for Safari Club International, a big-game hunting organization that tracks hunting records. An employee at at Animal Artistry, a well-known taxidermy shop in Reno, had measured the deer’s antlers for the record books and filled out the form.
Kautz was out of state at the time at the time of the search, but one of his cousins was at the house. As the wardens were about to leave, the cousin’s phone rang. It was Kautz. He wanted to speak with Pirtle. He repeatedly told Pirtle he didn’t kill the deer illegally. The deer’s head was still at the Nevada taxidermy shop, he said.
Pirtle told Kautz “to make sure the deer did not disappear from Reno as I needed to see the deer,” according to his report. To which Kautz replied, “‘Yes, no problem.’”
Pirtle wrote that soon after he hung up, he called his counterparts in Nevada and asked for a state game warden to head over to the taxidermy shop to pick up the deer’s head.
By the time the Nevada warden arrived at the shop the next afternoon, Kautz had already called the shop and paid the balance he owed. Someone had been by and to pick up the trophy mount. No one had picked up the deer’s tail, which Kautz had left with the shop.
Blacktail deer are native to California’s Central Valley and the coast range. They’re usually smaller than their cousins, the mule deer. Pirtle wrote in his report that Kautz likely felt he needed to keep the tail in case someone questioned the genetic purity of his trophy. The official record books also say to be counted as a true blacktail, it has to be shot west of the Sacramento River. Wilton is east of the arbitrary boundary.
Though the head was missing, the Nevada warden did get a copy of the kill permit Kautz had left with the taxidermist. That “deer tag” had been signed by Larry Fluty, then a corporal with the Lodi Police Department. California’s hunting laws require hunters who kill a deer to take the carcass immediately to a trustworthy official such as a police officer or fireman and have the deer kill validated under state law.
Having a valid deer tag was important to Kautz for another reason, the wardens alleged. Trophy record books require that any animal entered into them must have been killed in compliance with all state and federal laws.
So how did Fluty’s name and the October kill date get on the tag when it was clear to the game wardens that Kautz had killed the animal months later?
Fluty, who now works as an investigator with the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, told Pirtle he never actually saw the deer, and signed “Oct. 30, 2016” on Kautz’s deer tag based on a picture. He claimed he couldn’t remember when he signed the tag. He said he knew Kautz from his CrossFit gym and because Kautz would call him when he was with Lodi PD for help when Kautz was having problems with people at his rental properties.
“Great, now Kautz has gotten me into something illegal,” Fluty told Pirtle, according to the game warden’s report. Fluty later apologized to Pirtle and told him he “realized he really messed up and should have realized this was illegal activity afoot by Kautz.”
Pirtle had initially requested Fluty be charged with a misdemeanor for submitting false information on a deer tag, but Foy, the Fish and Wildlife captain, said the department decided to instead leave any punishment up to Fluty’s bosses at the District Attorney’s Office.
“We figure it’s best handled with his own agency,” Foy said.
Zephanii Smith, a spokeswoman for the DA, declined to comment, citing laws that prohibit disclosure of public employee disciplinary records.
Over the next few weeks, wardens tried to locate the deer’s head to no avail. Kautz’s then-attorney, Gregory Davenport, never responded to a certified letter, email and fax the wardens sent his office demanding he provide it to them, the court documents said.
Wardens alleged Kautz’s friends, a pair of brothers, sent a worker from their construction business in Reno over to the taxidermist to grab the deer mount before the warden arrived and then stored the deer head at their construction company while wardens were looking for it. The Sacramento Bee is not naming the brothers because they are not public figures, and they have not been charged.
One of the brothers refused to speak to the wardens without an attorney. The other brother spoke with them at his home in Lodi in November. Pirtle told him that covering up for his buddy, Kautz, could well get him and everyone else involved in serious trouble, including possibly felony conspiracy charges.
“I advised the lengths Kautz had gone to conceal this deer, including involving a peace officer and all his friends, is getting ridiculous,” Pirtle wrote of his November conversation with Kautz’s friend. “I advised we are going to continue to investigate these crimes as long as Kautz and all involved keep committing crimes and the deer isn’t located.”
Pirtle had originally requested that the Sacramento County District Attorney charge one of the brothers with criminal conspiracy, a felony, and a misdemeanor count of knowingly concealing evidence, according to Pirtle’s reports.
Foy said those charges weren’t pursued when Kautz entered his no contest plea to two misdemeanors.
Kautz’s $5,000 fine was among the first under new legislation that took effect on July 1 that allows for fines of up to $40,000 for those caught poaching animals for trophies.
Pirtle had originally requested Kautz be charged with 12 counts, including two felonies. Not only did Kautz flagrantly violate the laws, Pirtle wrote that it’s common for hunters to pay more than $35,000 for licenses and guide fees to legally shoot a trophy buck of that size.
Kautz cheated his fellow hunters out of a prestigious record-book deer, said Keith Balfourd, a spokesman for the Boone and Crockett Club, a national hunting organization that keeps trophy records.
“To sportsmen paying into this system, this really hits home because this guy stole,” Balfourd said. “He did it illegally where everybody else follows the rules and follows the law.”
Welch, Kautz’s Sacramento attorney, said Kautz didn’t have a trophy in mind when he shot the deer. If that was the case, Welch said, he could have let it grow even bigger the next season on his property.
“Jack Kautz is an ethical hunter who would have never shot that deer out of season, unless the deer was suffering from a mortal wound, which was the broken leg,” Welch said.
He added: “Jack’s a humane guy. He’s a good guy.”
After his client agreed to plead no contest, Welch contacted game wardens and told them to come by his office and pick up the stuffed buck’s head, with its impressive set of antlers.
Kautz will never be allowed to own his trophy buck. Officials said the wildlife agency will likely use the buck’s head for educational purposes, such as putting it on display at public outreach events.