Estates man pleads guilty to shooting panther in Golden Gate Estates in 2009

— In a first for Florida in nearly 30 years, a Golden Gate Estates man pleaded guilty Friday to killing an endangered Florida panther with a bow and arrow while he was deer hunting in 2009.

Todd Alan Benfield, 45, was arrested on the steps of the federal courthouse in Fort Myers before a change of plea hearing in front of Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell.

Until Friday, nobody had been arrested in connection with the killing of a panther in Florida since 1983. Seminole Chief James Billie was charged with shooting a panther on the Seminole Big Cypress Reservation. He eventually was found not guilty.

Without an eyewitness coming forward in the Benfield case, investigators from a half-dozen agencies faced a lengthy job of piecing together forensic evidence from Benfield’s house and vehicle, including collecting DNA evidence from Benfield and from the dead panther, said Andrew Aloise, special agent in charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The message is that no matter how long it takes us, we’ll put the resources and the effort into prosecuting and getting the person responsible,” Aloise said.

In a statement of apology attached to the plea agreement, Benfield said he shot the panther because he thought it was competing and interfering with his hunting.

“Killing the Florida panther was not a solution and I am very sorry for what I did,” says the statement, which the plea agreement requires him to pay to publish in the Naples Daily News once a week for two consecutive weeks.

Benfield goes on to apologize to the local and national community and his friends for the shooting and for any negative publicity it brings to hunting, and he urges others to learn from his mistake.

Killing a Florida panther carries a maximum federal penalty of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act.

Florida panthers once roamed the southeastern United States but now between 100 and 160 remain in South Florida.

Under the plea agreement, Benfield would serve three years of probation, including a month of intermittent prison time. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.

Benfield would contribute 200 hours of community service at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge or Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, pay a $5,000 fine and pay $5,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be used to help Florida panthers.

He would be prohibited from hunting during his probation, would have to take a hunter education class and would forfeit the compound bow, arrow, bow case and tree stand he used to kill the panther.

Benfield shot the panther while he was bow hunting along Woodland Grade in Golden Gate Estates in October 2009, according to the plea agreement.

The next day, Benfield and another person found the panther and moved it farther into the woods to conceal it. The other person isn’t named in the plea agreement.

The day after that, Benfield removed his tree stand. The same day, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer found the dead panther in thick vegetation off Woodland Grade. The officer determined that the dead panther had been dragged about 50 yards, according to the plea.

Less than a week after he shot the panther, Benfield was interviewed by investigators from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservation Commission and lied about having anything to do with the killing, according to Benfield’s statement.

Other agencies involved in the investigation were the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, the Miami-Dade Crime Laboratory, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Ore.

Video from NBC-2

Aloise, the special federal agent, said the Fish and Wildlife Service has investigated a string of five panther killings in Southwest Florida since 2007.

Two of the cases have been closed without an arrest but two others remain open, one in Hendry County and one in Golden Gate Estates, Aloise said.

Last August, an Ohio man pleaded guilty to shooting a Florida panther in southern Georgia. Genetic analysis showed that panther’s father lived in Southwest Florida before wildlife officials lost track of him in 2009. The man was sentenced to two years’ probation and was fined $2,000.

Earlier

A Naples-area man pleaded guilty today to shooting and killing a Florida panther in 2009 in Golden Gate Estates, federal prosecutors said.

Todd Alan Benfield, 45, faces a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, a fine of up to $100,000 and forfeiture of weapons and other equipment used to kill the panther, which is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a prepared statement that Benfield was bow hunting along Woodland Grade. From a tree stand, he knowingly shot and killed a panther with a compound bow and a three-blade broadhead-tipped arrow, the statement said.

The next day, Benfield and another person moved the panther farther into the woods to conceal it, the statement said. The other person isn’t named in today's announcement of Benfield's plea. Two days after he shot the panther, Benfield removed his tree stand.

The same day, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer found the dead panther in thick vegetation off Woodland Grade. The officer determined that the dead panther had been dragged about 50 yards, prosecutors said.

Return to naplesnews.com later today for more on this developing story

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