FORT BENTON — A Chouteau County jury has acquitted a Whitehall taxidermist who was charged with trespassing and unlawful outfitting after an undercover game warden shot a huge bighorn sheep.
The jury returned the verdict at 10:30 p.m. Friday after deliberating about three hours, finding John Lewton not guilty of two misdemeanor counts of hunting without landowner permission, felony unlawful possession of a game animal and misdemeanor outfitting without a license.
Prosecutors alleged that Lewton didn’t have a license, was using two-way radios and was crossing private land without permission while taking an undercover game warden on a bighorn ram hunt in September 2008.
The warden, Justin Gibson, shot the trophy bighorn ram in the Missouri River Breaks south of Big Sandy in 2008 so he wouldn’t blow his cover after intentionally missing several times.
The ram scored 204 inches under the Boone and Crockett record scoring system, a fraction below the current Montana record bighorn.
In closing arguments Friday, Lewton’s defense attorney, Jack Morris,
called Gibson the “trigger man” and a “trained liar, trained to deceive and entice people into committing crimes.”
The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Barb Harris, told jurors it shouldn’t matter how they felt about the death of the sheep, and she reminded them of testimony she said showed Lewton broke
the law, arguing that
Lewton provided services to Gibson.
Lewton has said he did not charge Gibson for outfitting but accompanied him on the hunt to videotape it.
In other court action surrounding the shooting of the bighorn, a Jefferson County jury acquitted Lewton in March of illegally buying the sheep from Gibson.
Lewton had been charged last August with felony unlawful purchase of a game animal after he paid $5,000 for the ram’s head and cape.
Late last month, Lewton sued Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks seeking the return of the head and cape of the trophy ram seized in the case.
Lewton’s civil suit filed in District Court in Helena also seeks more than $100,000 in attorney fees.
The bighorn sheep
cape and horns are being held by the state’s wildlife agency.
In Blaine County, Lewton still faces a charge of felony possession of a game animal.
Lewton argued that the charges in separate counties amounted to double jeopardy and sought to have some of them dismissed, but a judge ruled that the charges, while stemming from the same incident, dealt with different actions in each county.
Authorities said they began investigating Lewton in 2005 after other out-
fitters complained about him.