DNR officer, K-9 solve longtime poaching cases

Several deer poaching cases, including one from 1984, were recently solved thanks to the dogged determination of a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and his K-9 partner.

For the past five years, Conservation Officer (CO) Travis Muyres of Ham Lake has been investigating the activities of Steven J. Benolkin, 57, of Isanti for alleged trespass and poaching deer.

“Mr. Benolkin has stated on numerous occasions that he has trespassed and killed deer in the University of Minnesota – Cedar Creek property,” Muyres said. “He joked that he has to hunt in tennis shoes so he can run without being caught by the warden.”

A November 2011 TIP call reported that Benolkin had dumped a truck bed of carrots next to a hunting blind in Isanti. Muyres confirmed the call.

Another TIP call said Benolkin was bragging in a local restaurant about a “big deer” he had shot. Muyres deployed his K-9 partner “Hunter” at the blind to locate blood evidence. The United States Police Canine Association certified wildlife detector dog located two blood spots in the snow.

Hair and blood droplets next to the bait pile revealed a deer had been taken by archery. Blood spots, tire tracks and footprints at the site indicated a deer had been loaded into a vehicle. A set of footprints lead to a vehicle parked at the end of the driveway near the blind. The property where the driveway was located is leased by Steven Benolkin.

“I made contact with Benolkin, but he said he did not shoot the deer,” Muyres said.

A TIP call in early 2012 had Benolkin bragging again about a 10-point buck he had shot, even showing a picture in public. During the course of the investigation, a trail camera picture was obtained of the possible 10-point buck that was killed. Evidence led to a local taxidermist where Benolkin had dropped off the head and cape of the 10-point buck in November 2011.

In March, a search warrant was issued in Isanti County for Benolkin’s residence.

“Mr. Benolkin continued to deny any involvement with the deer, or that he took a picture of the 10-point antlers,” Muyres said.

When conservation officers executed a search warrant at the residence, Benolkin said he had shot the deer and used his son’s tag. He also admitted to the bait pile and blind where the deer was shot.

When questioned about seven deer mounts in the living room, Benolkin said three were taken when he trespassed on the U of M – Cedar Creek property, one he thought was shot in 1984, and the most recent one in 2004. The three deer heads were seized, along with other evidence that included a crossbow. A pickup truck was also seized.

Benolkin is charged with a gross misdemeanor for transporting illegally taken big game, as well as misdemeanors for taking deer over bait, illegal party hunting, failure to validate site tag, failure to tag deer, and two incidents of possessing an illegally taken big game animal. A court date has been set for Aug. 1 in Isanti County Court.