Willy Hollings was admired by his fellow poachers as a “stone cold killer” — a prolific slayer of elk, bear, deer and cougar cubs.
He wasn’t always Willy Hollings, envy of his peers, of course. Once he was plain William Huet Hollings IV. Then he took his trusty rifle and his trusty spotlight into the Coast Range on his way home from work and began shooting. And shooting. And shooting.
He shot far more deer than he had tags for. He shot cougars which were younger than the law allowed. He shot bears and bobcats. He shot Roosevelt Elk, descendants of the animals brought into Oregon from Wyoming over a hundred years ago to replace the elk which had been exterminated by careless hunting, and which poachers like Hollings and the other members of his group were putting in danger by their secretive over-hunting.
Curt Melcher, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, considers poaching to be the farthest thing from a “victimless” crime. “We’ve seen what could happen, and that [did] happen…back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when essentially elk were all but extirpated from Oregon. And the same is true and would be true with other species.”
The Fish & Wildlife Division of the Oregon State Police knew there were poachers out there. They’d seen the diminishing numbers of deer, cougar and bear. It was hard to prove that animals were being killed out of season, though, and harder still to connect an individual poacher with an individual animal. If they didn’t catch a poacher literally red-handed — in the process of butchering a cougar cub which still had the spots of a juvenile still nursing, or an elk shot out of season — how were they to have any evidence with which to obtain a conviction?
“The victims obviously cannot speak up for themselves,” as Sristi Kamal of Defenders of Wildlife puts it. “And then evidence-including the victim-is easy to hide or dispose.”
Fortunately, Hollings and his friends came to their rescue through a combination of modern electronics and old-fashioned criminal arrogance: they couldn’t keep from bragging to one another about their latest illegal animal killings. On Nov. 13, 2019, for instance, Hollings sent a friend a text message reading, “The 7 mag did some work on the way home today.” It would have been difficult for Hollings to claim that “7 mag” referred to anything other than his 7mm Remington Magnum rifle, even if he hadn’t attached a photograph of three dead cougar cubs.
Hollings, Nicholas Lisenby and Eric Hamiltongrew up as the sons of hunters. They had been taught by their families and their peers to obey the laws and the customs of hunting. At some point, though, they decided that the rules were just too restrictive. They began killing more deer than they had tags for, used tags which had been issued to their girlfriends and other family members, shot animals out of season, shot animals that were too young to be taken legally, went out hunting at night with portable spotlights.
Eventually, they were about as much hunters as a mugger who uses a baseball bat is a ballplayer.
Poachers will often try to justify their actions, saying that they don’t care about an abstract notion like sportsmanship, only about obtaining food for their families. The problem with that idea is that the animals don’t just happen to be there in the forest. They were placed there and carefully tended by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, protected by the Oregon State Police and also by the Sheriff’s Departments of the various Counties where they lived. It had always been a class A misdemeanor to violate the game laws in Oregon, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $6,250 fine. Since the 2019 session of the Oregon Legislature, it’s been a felony, and the maximum penalty is now a five-year prison sentence and a $125,000 fine. Hollings, Lisenby and Hamilton are getting to find that out the hard way. They are facing more than forty charges in Benton, Lincoln, Linn and Polk Counties.
They also evidently thought of themselves as being enough like “sportsmen” that they were entitled to show off trophies: not only photographs of their kills, but also boiled skulls and stuffed hides prepared by “discreet” taxidermists who would mount skins they knew had been illegally obtained and keep their mouths shut.
The lead investigator, Sergeant Jim Andrews of the Oregon State Police Fish & Wildlife Division, thinks the poaching began as simply a way of obtaining meat cheaply. “But then it morphed into something more with Hollings to the point where it almost seemed like he was feeding an addiction,” he said.
Hollings, Lisenby and Hamilton are not even the worst offenders to be prosecuted under the new laws. A father and son from Longview, Washington, were charged in 2019 with more than 200 counts of illegal wildlife shooting in Oregon and Washington in what Paul Donheffner, legislative committee chair for the Oregon Hunters Association, called “an organized killing spree,” in testimony during the 2019 Oregon Legislative session. “They weren’t hunting,” Donheffner said. “They were out to destroy our wildlife.”
Others had strong words to say about poaching. Oregon State Representative Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie), an active hunter, told Willamette Week’s Tess Riski, “Some very, very evil people-there’s no way other than that to explain it-they enjoy killing. There is nothing more reprehensible, gut-wrenching, than people who kill for the pleasure of killing.”
By John Burt
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