MINERVA, Ohio – A year-long undercover investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources led to the arrest of John and Joanne Schneider, owners of Pine Hill Meats in Columbiana County, plus one employee Nov. 15.
The couple was arrested on misdemeanor charges of commercializing wildlife.
John W. Schneider, 57, was charged with five counts of buying deer meat and two counts of possessing untagged deer parts.
All are misdemeanors of the first degree, which carry possible penalties of $1,000 in fines and 180 days in jail on each count.
Joanne Schneider, 51, was charged with three counts of selling deer meat and one count of records violations.
Sale of white-tailed deer meat is a misdemeanor of the third degree in Ohio, carrying a maximum penalty of $500 in fines and 60 days in jail on each count. The records violation is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $250 and 30 days in jail.
The Columbiana County sheriff also arrested an employee, Steven Ratliff, as a result of the sting. Ratliff will be charged with drug possession after officers discovered drugs and drug paraphernalia during their search of the property.
The Columbiana County Drug Task Force is investigating activity related to the drugs found at the scene.
State wildlife officer Reno Reda said undercover officers had been interacting with Pine Hill’s owners for about a year during the investigation.
The investigation kicked off after the state department received numerous anonymous calls on its poacher tip line pointing to sketchy activity at Pine Hill.
More than a dozen state wildlife officers surprised the processing plant’s owners and at least two employees when they arrived on the scene around 8 a.m. last Wednesday, according to officer Jerry Arnal.
Officers seized at least one firearm, deer meat and parts, hooks, grinders, saws, cutting tables and records from the shop off Mountz Road near Minerva.
Also taken were at least five skinned carcasses and other cuts of meat in various stages of processing that appeared to have been taken illegally, Reda said.
Reda explained a hunter is responsible for tagging a deer where it fell with a temporary tag. The hunter then has to take that deer to a check station where it’s identified with a state-issued metal tag before going on to a taxidermist or processing facility.
The Schneiders are accused of selling and buying deer that were not tagged, and failing to maintain records listing who killed the deer, when it was killed, and who brought it in.
Reda was unsure how many people were employed at Pine Hill, but said each person’s exact involvement will be determined as the investigation continues. The department of natural resources suspects many other individuals, including customers, may be charged.
“This thing is going to spider web out as we start to compare records,” he said.
Pine Hill Meats also processes approximately 500-600 deer taken legally each year, Reda said.
The facility is inspected and is licensed to process other meat, such as beef. No beef or other legally slaughtered meats were seized during the raid, Reda said.
As of presstime, no one from Pine Hill had returned calls asking whether customers could pick up meat products from farm animals and deer taken legally.
Pine Hill Meats had previous records violations.
About four years ago, the Schneiders were charged and paid first-offense fines for not properly documenting incoming deer carcasses, including who brought them, and accepting untagged deer, Reda said.
More recently, the department had received several complaints over a period of months that led to the beginnings of the recent investigation.
“Most people who hunt know the process of tagging deer and are incredibly ethical, and they police their own ranks very well,” Reda said.
“Our jobs would be much more difficult without the help of other hunters and the poaching tip line,” Reda said.
Calls regarding wildlife violations can be placed anonymously at 1-800-POACHER (800-762-2437).
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