Two minutes before sunrise on opening day of the 2017 deer season, a pair of game wardens approached a deer stand on private property near Bear Lake in Freeborn County.
The enforcement division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had made it known before the statewide hunt that the agency would be cracking down on deer baiting. In the vicinity of Albert Lea, this included pre-hunt surveillance of area hunting lands by a DNR pilot.
The pilot's report to local Conservation Officer Jeremy Henke included a sighting of corn piled near a stand not far from a township road. During predawn Nov. 4, Henke and his lieutenant, Jason Beckmann, parked their squads in a driveway at the location and proceeded toward a ladder stand positioned within easy range of a large, trough-style livestock feeder loaded with corn.
According to DNR photos taken at the scene, the feeder was elevated 2 feet off the ground and stationed in an unobstructed grassy lane lined with trees on either side. A trail camera with its lens pointed squarely at the feeder was fastened to an adjacent post. The DNR incident report estimated the feeder to be within 30 to 35 yards of the deer stand.
Before the two officers reached the stand, they saw an orange-clad hunter walking toward them. He was carrying a large-caliber handgun mounted with a scope.
"Hi, Jeremy," the man said to Henke.
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Henke previously worked for the Freeborn County Sheriff's Department, and he recognized the deer baiting suspect as fellow officer Timothy Michael Bennett, still a deputy under Sheriff Kurt Freitag.
But the bond between the two officers didn't spare Bennett from an arrest. While still at the scene, records state, Henke turned the investigation over to Lt. Beckmann to avoid potential conflicts. Beckmann confiscated Bennett's sidearm -- a camouflage-colored Savage Model 516 -- and cited him for hunting deer with the aid or use of bait.
Now the case is being watched by law enforcement agencies on both sides. Bennett pleaded not guilty earlier this month and is positioned to fight the DNR's charge, a misdemeanor. Freitag said his patrol sergeant will face certain job discipline if he pleads guilty to the charge or is found guilty.
"We'll release what we can once there's been a final disposition," Freitag said. "It looks like aspects of the discipline would be public."