TOPEKA — The two 9-millimeter rounds fired by poacher David Kent at an Osage County whitetail deer with bizarre 14-point antlers hit the mark.
Kent scrambled from his vehicle in the darkness Nov. 11, 2011, onto private property, decapitated the buck and drove away. Kent was in possession of what turned out to be a world-class rack in the “perfect” category with seven left and right antlers. That might have been the end to the hunting story, but the poacher couldn’t resist showing off the antlers at a big show in Topeka.
State wildlife officers seized the antlers from Kent and set off an extraordinary regulatory, criminal, political and financial tug-of-war that pitted Scranton resident Tim Nedeau against the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for possession of the prized rack.
Kent was convicted of poaching and ordered by the district court to pay Nedeau $8,000 for illegally hunting on Nedeau family property, but that was a sideshow to feuding between Nedeau and state officials for rights to the trophy buck and reimbursement of $16,001 he paid the state for the rack now hanging in the office of a state representative at the Capitol.
More than nine years after the buck was shot on the Nedeau family farm, Gov. Laura Kelly signed a budget bill last week appropriating money to refund what Nedeau spent to acquire the antlers after posting the winning bid at an unpublicized auction conducted in the office of a state senator in 2020.
“It just floors me that they could have given them to me in 2012,” said Nedeau, who became convinced state agency officials made deceptive claims about him because they wanted to keep the rack. “It was a trophy for their walls.”
Rep. Ken Corbet, a Republican who owns Ravenwood Lodge, a shooting and hunting facility outside Topeka, said he was never certain the 2021 Legislature would retain the reimbursement piece in the $21 billion annual state budget. Years of legislative setbacks on this case taught him not to be too confident.
“Stars aligned,” Corbet said. “I had a lot of help this year. It’s a miracle you can make a constituent happy like this.”
He said Nedeau was one of the first constituents to call him for help after taking a seat in the Kansas House in 2013. Corbet later met with Robin Jennison, who was secretary of wildlife and parks at that time, to determine if a way could be found to release the rack to Nedeau. Corbet said Jennison told him in no uncertain terms Nedeau would not get the antlers.
The state agency contended land where the deer was shot was owned by Nedeau’s mother, not Nedeau, and that negated Nedeau’s claim to the antlers. The animal, according to the poacher, staggered across a road and died on land owned by a neighbor of the Nedeau family. Nedeau said the place of the deer’s final breath didn’t matter because evidence offered by the shooter said the engagement began on the Nedeau family’s property.
Kent invited legal trouble in 2012 by generating publicity for the trophy rack at the Mossy Oak Buck Classic in Topeka. He told state wildlife department officers the buck was legally hunted outside of Osage County, but trail camera photographs of that buck demonstrated Kent was lying. After learning of the seizure, Nedeau requested a salvage tag for the buck, but was denied by the state.
The 2014 Legislature, partly in response to the Nedeau dispute, passed a law requiring landowners to be given first refusal rights of wildlife poached on their property. A key point was that the statute wasn’t retroactive and had no bearing on the Kent-Nedeau situation.
The Kansas House a year later passed a bill mandating the state surrender the highly valued antlers to Nedeau, but it didn’t receive sufficient support in the Kansas Senate.
The campaign to resolve the dispute stalled until the state wildlife department notified Nedeau the antlers would be sold at the unadvertised private auction in 2020. During the auction conducted in the office of then-Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley in the Statehouse, Nedeau topped the only other bidder, a representative of Bass Pro Shops, at $16,001. Nedeau, who viewed the auction as illegal, was told the minimum bid would be $10,000.
Brad Loveless, secretary of the cabinet agency, said some claims of the poacher could never be confirmed and the auction was proper. Money paid by Nedeau for the rack was deposited in the Operation Game Thief account to reward people helping authorities convict poachers. Loveless personally handed over the antlers to Nedeau after last year’s auction.
Nedeau subsequently filed a claim with the state for reimbursement of the $16,001, a request opposed by the state wildlife secretary.
“The department has acted appropriately and followed the law with regard to disposal of evidence of a crime,” Loveless told the joint House and Senate claims committee. “Finally, the department‘s actions, even if negligence could be attributed, are discretionary functions and therefore are immune from liability under the Kansas Tort Claims Act.”
Nevertheless, Nedeau’s plea for repayment was slipped into the new state government’s budget. The governor pulled the trigger by signing the bill into law.