MARQUETTE COUNTY, Mich. (WJMN) – A former Northern Michigan University student is serving 60 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to sabotaging a hunter’s tree stand in Marquette County in 2020.
Thomas Steele III, 23, of Chelsea, Michigan pleaded guilty to misdemeanors of aggravated assault and hunter harassment under a plea agreement in Marquette County Circuit Court, according to a release from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Steele is serving the 60-day sentence in the Marquette County Jail.
The charges stem from harassment that the DNR says began in October 2020 on state hunting land in Marquette County. A local hunter arrived to the location of his tree stand set up on the land and found a note left by Steele saying that the hunter was set up in his hunting spot.
Steele deleted photos from the hunter’s trail camera, and left his phone number on the note with a request for the hunter to call him. After speaking to Steele on the phone, the hunter agreed to stay away from the spot.
The DNR added that exclusive rights cannot be claimed on public hunting land in Michigan. Hunting equipment like a tree stand or deer blind left unoccupied on state land can be used by another individual.
The hunter eventually returned to the spot weeks later, finding it to appear untouched. The man grabbed his memory card from the trail camera and began to climb the tree stand.
The hunter pulled on the climbing sticks, finding them secured. He reached the top, but fell over 15 feet to the ground after the stand’s platform collapsed when he stepped out onto it.
The hunter injured his ankle and back in the fall, but was able to leave the area to call 911. Upon receiving the hunter’s call, DNR Conservation Officer Josh Boudreaux took a statement from the hunter and launched an investigation.
Weeks later, the hunter returned to the location and used new straps to setup his tree stand. The area was under surveillance by Steele, who sent the following text message to the hunter the next day:
“Are we going to work something out for this spot or what? I got a picture of you yesterday going in there with climbing sticks. Just not gonna respect I was there first?”
Conservation officers continued monitoring the hunter’s tree stand and acquired evidence of Steele cutting the victim’s tree stand straps a second time. Boudreaux obtained a search warrant for Steele’s trail camera, which had been left on state land. Conservation officers removed the camera.
“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 explained. “The victim would have fallen 15 to 20 feet to the ground.”
Steele believed the hunter stole his trail camera and left threatening voicemails on his phone. Steele later called 911 to report his missing trail camera.
Boudreaux answered Steele’s call and arranged to meet in-person, along with Conservation Officer John Kamps and public safety officers from NMU. During the meeting, the DNR says Steele offered a full confession, admitting that he sabotaged the hunter’s tree stand.
Steele was charged in 2021. Steele has already been suspended from NMU, and withdrew from the school prior to being expelled.
As part of his guilty plea, Steele is required to reimburse the victim’s medical expenses for injuries sustained in a fall from his tree stand. He must also serve a one-year probation term.
Steele’s hunting privileges were revoked for an amount of time yet to be determined. Additionally, as Michigan is a member of the Interstate Wildlife Violator’s Compact, Steele’s right to hunt will also be revoked in nearly all 50 states.
“Hunter harassment is real and taken very seriously,” said Dave Shaw, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources 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.”