Suspect named in reindeer farm shootings

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) Authorities are looking for a 20-year-old Butte man suspected of shooting seven reindeer five fatally at a farm near Palmer in January.

Caleb G. Bennett, a former employee at the Williams Reindeer Farm in Butte, is believed to have left the state, Alaska State Troopers said.

Since we have not contacted him, we don't have the benefit having a motive he might share with us,'' Capt. Dennis Casanovas said Friday.

Bennett was indicted Thursday on five counts of criminal mischief following a two-month investigation by troopers. The District Attorney's office also has charged Bennett with seven counts of animal cruelty and one count of weapons misconduct.

The charges carry penalties that total a maximum of 33 years in prison and $330,000 in fines.

Leads from local residents helped investigators narrow their focus to Bennett, Casanovas said.

The public in general was so outraged by this cruelty to animals,'' Casanovas said. It's very refreshing to see the level of cooperation from the community that helped us solve this case.''

The reindeer were shot with a .22-caliber rifle in the early morning hours of Jan. 31. One of the animals was killed immediately, two others had to be euthanized and two died of the wounds the following day. The animals were valued at a total of $15,000.

Troopers believe Bennett was the snowmachiner who stopped at the fence of the farm, shot the animals, then sped off. Bennett had briefly worked for farm owners Tom and Gene Williams in 1998.

Farm owner Tom Williams saw the snowmachine rider after hearing shots about 5 a.m. that morning, but it was too dark for him to make an identity. Williams followed the snowmachiner in a vehicle up and down roads in the Butte area, south of Palmer, until he lost him an hour later.

Troopers said a Butte man was so angry about the shootings he spent several hours following the suspect's distinctive tracks that morning. The tracks led to a house on Juniper Street.

Another tip came from a Butte woman whose cable service was cut off that morning. Repair crews found parts of a snowmachine that had damaged a cable box.

Troopers found a damaged snowmachine at the Juniper Street home as well as firearms, including one that matched the cartridges left at the reindeer farm.

Casanovas said Bennett was linked to the home but he declined to elaborate.

Gene Williams said she vaguely remembered Bennett because he was such a short-time employee.

What I remember is that he seemed like such a nice kid,'' she said. He would help me in the garden and visit and handle bales of hay. I was so surprised that he would do something like this.''

The Williamses own 140 reindeer, including some considered show animals, as well as a few moose, Sitka blacktail deer and elk. The 160-acre farm draws about 10,000 paying tourists each year.

Tom Williams said the deer that were shot were among his best, kept near the road so passers-by could enjoy them, too. Now the family is keeping all the deer away from the fence at night and might do away with the free view altogether.

We were operating on the philosophy that we like our neighbors and our neighbors liked us,'' Williams said. No one of them has gone and killed our animals.''

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