CHELSEA, Mich. – A Chelsea man has been sentenced to jail after he got into a territorial dispute with a fellow hunter and twice sabotaged the other man’s tree stand, causing him to fall 15-20 feet to the ground.
Hunter finds note on trail camera
A hunter from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula told officials that he found a note on his trail camera in October 2020. The camera was set up on state hunting land in Marquette County.
The note was written by Thomas Steele III, 23, of Chelsea, and told the other hunter that he was set up in Steele’s hunting spot, according to authorities.
Steele left his phone number on the note and asked the hunter to call him. He had also deleted the pictures on the hunter’s trail camera.
“The hunter contacted Steele, apologizing that he was unaware someone was using the area,” a release from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says. “Over the phone, Steele insisted that the hunter stay off the land. Eventually the hunter lost patience and told Steele he would stay away.”
Hunters can’t claim exclusive rights to public hunting land in Michigan. Any tree stand or deer blind left unoccupied can be used by another hunter.
Tree stand turned into trap
When the hunter returned to his tree stand weeks later, the area looked untouched. He climbed up his tree stand, yanking on the climbing sticks to make sure everything was secure, officials said.
The top appeared to be intact, but when he stepped onto the platform of his stand, it immediately snapped and caused him to fall 15-20 feet to the ground, according to authorities.
Officials said the hunter landed on his feet, but he hurt his ankle and his back.
When he looked up, he saw that the stand was dangling from the tree, about 8 feet above the ground.
The hunter said he was worried that Steele might be watching him on camera, so he limped out of the woods and called 911. He checked his memory card and realized it had again been wiped clear of images.
Hunter receives text from Steele
After a few weeks, the hunter returned to the spot and used new straps to set up his tree stand, officials said.
The next day, he received a text from Steele, who was using a camera to spy on the hunter, according to the DNR.
“Are we going to work something out for this spot or what?” Steele said to the hunter. “I got a picture of you yesterday going in there with climbing sticks. Just not gonna respect I was there first?”
‘Trap door effect’: Straps cut again
DNR conservation officers Josh Boudreaux and John Kamps monitored the hunter’s tree stand and found evidence of Steele cutting the straps a second time, they said.
“The straps were cut in such a way that they would support the weight of the tree stand but would break as soon as additional weight was applied to them, having a trap door effect,” Boudreaux said. “The victim would have fallen 15-20 feet to the ground.”
Steele’s camera seized
Boudreaux received a search warrant for Steele’s trail camera, which had been left on state land. Conservation officers removed the camera.
Steele thought the hunter had stolen his trail camera, so he left threatening voicemails on the man’s phone and criticized him on multiple social media pages.
Steele eventually called 911 to report his missing trail camera, according to authorities.
Boudreaux took Steele’s 911 call and arranged to meet him in person, alongside Kamps and public safety officers from Northern Michigan University, where Steele was enrolled at the time.
Steele confessed to sabotaging the hunter’s tree stand, officials said.
He was charged in 2021 with misdemeanor aggravated assault and misdemeanor hunter harassment. He pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal and was sentenced to 60 days in the Marquette County Jail and one year of probation.
Steele must also pay the hunter’s medical bills.
He had already been suspended from Northern Michigan University, but Steele withdrew before he was expelled, according to the DNR.
Steele’s hunting privileges were revoked for an undetermined length of time. Since Michigan is a member of the Interstate Wildlife Violator’s Compact, he’ll be unable to hunt in almost all 50 states.
“Hunter harassment is real and taken very seriously,” said Dave Shaw, chief of the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Most hunters respect the land and each other and take pride in an ethical hunt.
“The DNR hopes that by sharing the details of this case, we can bring awareness to the consequences of this person’s unethical and dangerous behavior and know that it will not be tolerated.”