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Feavel sentenced in deer poaching case


Five years in prison, hunting privileges permanently revoked

By Greg Seubert

A Fox Valley man will spend five years in prison for his role in a Waupaca County deer poaching case that authorities said is one of Wisconsin’s largest in recent memory.

Meanwhile, the other suspect in the case remains free after failing to show up for a court hearing.

Eric A. Feavel, 41, of Menasha pleaded guilty Aug. 10 in Waupaca County Circuit Court to three felony counts of bail jumping and three misdemeanor counts of illegal shining of deer.

Waupaca County Judge Troy Nielsen also permanently revoked Feavel’s hunting privileges and fined him $1,000 on each of the three shining charges, plus a total of $5,958 in couirt costs. He also dismissed 45 other charges in connection with the case.

Feavel recently began serving a one-year sentence at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun on an unrelated case in Door County and was out on bond at the time the Waupaca County charges were filed against him.

The other suspect in the case, Travis J. Vander Heiden, 37, moved from Appleton to Pampa, Texas, shortly after misdemeanor charges were filed against him in February. He failed to show up by telephone from Texas for a court hearing in July and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Years of poaching

According to criminal complaints filed against Feavel and Vander Heiden, the two illegally killed several deer in Waupaca County from 2019-22.

Six state Department of Natural Resources conservation wardens – Jonathan Kaiser, Jeff Nieling, Zachary Seitz, Kaitlin Kernosky, Jason Higgins and Mark Schraufnagel – investigated the case.

According to criminal complaints filed against Feavel and Vander Heiden, Nieling responded to a report on Nov. 12, 2022, of a vehicle shining deer and a report of a decapitated buck found two days earlier in a farm field near Weyauwega.

Nieling stopped a vehicle on Railroad Grade Road and identified Vander Heiden as the driver and Feavel as a passenger. Feavel was wearing an ankle bracelet and Nieling also found a crossbow in the vehicle.

Vander Heiden told Nieling they were shining deer and later admitted to illegally harvesting more than 30 deer with Feavel dating back to 2019.

Kaiser attended Feavel’s sentencing hearing and said there were several reasons why the poaching went on for years.

“I would say the main factors was it was done at night and it was done in a remote and rural area with not many houses in sight,” he said. “The area was left if there was any thought in their mind that they would be encountered. This was in large part a huge cooperation between us and the local community through tips that were called in and contact with local hunters and concerned landowners. That’s what really brought this together.”

Kaiser called the investigation one of the largest local poaching cases in recent memory.

“Within the last 10 or so years, we had a case involving what I believe to be maybe 50 deer impacted,” he said. “Due to the frequency and volume of deer impacted, I believe it’s fair to say the defendants don’t even remember the exact number. There certainly could have been more. Compared to our more typical deer cases, this one is certainly exceptional. We don’t recall when we’ve had a lifetime revocation of any privileges. This certainly does bring some closure to a portion of the case.”

Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Bolz prosecuted the case.

“This was a case that spanned over a significant period of time,” he said. “Mr. Feavel was involved in what could be described at this time as the biggest poaching case in the state of Wisconsin. We don’t know exactly how many deer were poached, but we have a good idea that there were a large number of deer that were taken illegally by Mr. Feavel and his codefendant. There is some disparity on who was shining and who was pulling the trigger on every situation, but we’re confident that they were both involved in this situation.”

The poaching affected several landowners, according to Bolz.

“There are many people who feel they have been victimized by Mr. Feavel,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that he is here today taking responsibility for his actions. His codefendant is in the state of Texas. Clearly, he is not someone who at this point is willing to come back and accept responsibility. We feel that Mr. Feavel has taken the high road here and is willing to say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake,’ and is willing to face the punishment. That is something that hopefully the landowners and community will realize. I do take that into account and I think a significant penalty is appropriate. It was over a significant period of time. As the wardens looked into it, the number of deer kept increasing, as well as the number of landowners that were affected by this. The DNR indicated that this was likely the biggest poaching case at least during this time period. It was something the DNR as well as the DA’s office took very seriously and that’s why we requested the prison sentence that we requested as well as the supervision and the significant amount of fine that’s he’s going to be ordered to pay. Five years from today (Aug. 10) is when he’ll get out and then he’ll be on supervision for the next five years.

“Whitetail hunting in Waupaca County is a thing that many individuals take very seriously,” Bolz said. “They invest time, money, effort into being able to go harvest deer legally. Many of them probably practice quality deer management to allow some of these deer to continue to grow so they can be harvested in landowners’ minds trophies to be displayed. In this situation, the defendant was driving around after legal hunting hours without proper tags and hunting privileges and was shooting deer. The codefendant (Vander Heiden) indicated he was doing some of this to practice his taxidermy with European mounts. In certain cases, they would just cut the heads off. They really had no regard for the animal. Many hunters want to make sure they to a quality kill so that the animal suffers as least as possible. In this case, you have individuals using spotlights and shooting from the roadway.”

Vander Heiden is facing 51 misdemeanor counts in the case.

“Unfortunately, the law prohibits us from extraditing someone back on misdemeanors,” Bolz said. “Our hope is at some point that Mr. Vander Heiden does come back and take responsibility for these actions, but at this point, he can be on the run for the rest of his life. It’s been my experience that by the time you want to apply for Social Security and things like that, they won’t allow you to have that if you have open warrants. At some point, it’ll catch up to him. I don’t know what kind of sentence he will get, but we will do what we feel is appropriate to hold him accountable. It won’t be a prison sentence because we don’t have that capability, but we will hold him accountable as well as what we did for Mr. Feavel.”

Feavel in court

Feavel and his attorney, Kate Frigo Drury, addressed the court.

“I would just like to apologize to the court,” Feavel said. “I made a poor choice and want to apologize for that.”

“What we have today are two actors, Travis and Eric,” Frigo Drury said. “This started out as a decision to put food on the table, but as Eric told me, it quickly morphed into something more than that, into an action that was fueled by greed. Travis was an individual who had a European mount business. Travis was the individual who went into the fields to harvest the deer. Travis was the individual who decided to leave some of the carcasses of the deer in the field.

“Eric is not hiding out in Texas refusing to take responsibility for the offenses that have occurred here,” she said. “Eric is sitting in front of you today understanding that what he did was wrong. He understands that not only will he have the court’s punishment today, he has the community’s punishment for what he did. The community is outraged and he knows that. He’s had Facebook messages from community members directed at him, directed at his mother. He is truly remorseful for allowing his greed to fuel these antisocial decisions that led him before the court today. Eric was extremely cooperative with the law enforcement investigation in this case. I think that also speaks to his character.”

“When someone is sentenced, there’s a fine option, a supervision option or incarceration,” Bolz said. “In this case, he got all three, so we’re happy with that. Unfortunately, that won’t bring the deer back and it won’t allow the time and effort that landowners put in to harvest these deer legally. Hopefully, it sends a message to those landowners as well as the hunting community that we need to take this serious and if you do go out and violate these hunting privileges, there’s going to be a stiff penalty.”

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