The Strontium Scheme

Wisconsin investigators have discovered a new forensics method for catching criminals. And they owe it all to two sneaky deer hunters.It was back in November 1996 that Clyde Masten III, a used car salesman and sometime Elvis impersonator, and construction worker John Owen claimed to have traveled from their homes in Columbia County (near Wisconsin Dells) to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to kill a deer. They even videotaped the event.Wisconsin conservation warden John Wilke was suspicious. Masten was a flagrant wildlife violator with 27 convictions who’d had his hunting privileges revoked. Owen was on probation for burglary. But Wilke couldn’t disprove…

Wisconsin investigators have discovered a new forensics method for catching criminals. And they owe it all to two sneaky deer hunters.

It was back in November 1996 that Clyde Masten III, a used car salesman and sometime Elvis impersonator, and construction worker John Owen claimed to have traveled from their homes in Columbia County (near Wisconsin Dells) to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to kill a deer. They even videotaped the event.

Wisconsin conservation warden John Wilke was suspicious. Masten was a flagrant wildlife violator with 27 convictions who’d had his hunting privileges revoked. Owen was on probation for burglary. But Wilke couldn’t disprove their tale.

Two years later, Wilke heard Owen had found God and was rehabilitating himself. Wilke paid Owen a visit. He confessed.

Owen said on the night in question he was driving a pickup while Masten rode in back with a .22-caliber rifle. Coming to a field in Caledonia Township, Masten spotted and shot an 11-point buck. They then left the area, grabbed video and archery equipment from Masten’s house, picked up the deer, and drove through the night to the Upper Peninsula.

On a road near Bruce’s Crossing, Mich., the men unloaded the carcass, and Masten shot it with an arrow to prove this was a Michigan bow kill. Owen filmed Masten “discovering” the deer, which was then tagged and registered in Michigan.

A helpful confession. But with Masten sticking to his story and the prime testimony coming from a convicted felon like Owen, Wilke needed more evidence.

Wilke and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigator brought the problem to Dr. Brian Beard of UW-Madison’s College of Engineering, Geology and Geophysics. Beard had been doing research on strontium, a rare earth metal found in bedrock. The levels of strontium isotope vary in each geographic region and are retained in soil, water, plants and animals. Strontium is deposited in blood, teeth and bones, and can be measured to determine the region of origin.

Using Masten’s videotape, a Michigan conservation officer found the spot where Masten alleged the deer was killed. The officer rounded up six sets of deer antlers and skull caps from the area while Wilke did the same in Columbia County. Beard’s tests found the strontium levels in Masten’s buck did not match the samples from Michigan but were identical to those from Columbia County. Wilke had the proof he needed.

Masten was found guilty of a federal charge of illegally killing and transporting a trophy deer across state lines. He was slapped with 30 days in jail, a $2,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service, but the judge delayed Masten’s first day in prison so the Elvis impersonator could fulfill a previously scheduled performance in Branson, Mo.

The “Elvis Buck,” as it came to be known, marked the first time this forensic method was used in a criminal case. In two cases since then, state game wardens have brought trappers to justice after strontium testing revealed the true origins of otters they claimed were taken out of state. Masten, meanwhile, quit hunting, having told the judge who sentenced him, “I’ve turned my hunting obsession into [working] as a singing Elvis. Whatever I do, I have to be the best.” At last word, he was back to selling used cars and living in Illinois.

 

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