Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that the search of Peterson's cabin occurred in 2019.
A reality television star and hunting guide is suing multiple Wyoming government agencies and their employees, saying they violated her privacy, hurt her reputation and caused her emotional distress while pursuing a poaching case against her.
Melanie M. Peterson, of Texas, filed a lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming against the Wyoming Game and Fish and multiple game wardens; against the Wyoming Board of Professional Outfitters and Guides and at least two of its employees; and against the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office.
She’s claiming state officials unconstitutionally cornered and questioned her in 2019, seized all her electronics, questioned and intimidated her pre-teen grandchildren and gossiped about her case.
Before the poaching case started in 2021, Peterson won the 2018 reality show “Extreme Huntress.” She’d also set a new world record with an air rifle, paving the way for the legalization of hunting big game with air rifles, says her Thursday legal complaint.
Sponsorships and endorsement deals were pouring in, the complaint says.
Peterson had a pending offer to sell her lodge and buy an outfitting business, a deal that reportedly would have netted $3 million. She had more than $600,000 in booked hunting business with a three-year wait list; she’d recently started a new business venture with a former hunting client and plans to start a new coffee shop in Texas with multiple locations, says the complaint.
She also reportedly was expanding the guest capacity at a hunting lodge located in Daniel, Wyoming.
“She was one of the most respected female hunters and guide(s) in the industry,” Peterson’s complaint says. “She was often called upon to use her influence and large social media following to help combat issues that threatened hunting and the right to bear arms.”
In The Cabin
On Aug. 9, 2019, Peterson talked with Wyoming Game and Fish Warden Adam Hymus about getting some permission slips for private property access hunting over concern about an ownership change on some of her prior hunting grounds, says the complaint.
Hymus allegedly said he could bring the forms on his next trip in her direction and asked if she’d be around the next day, Sunday, Aug. 10.
Peterson said she’d be around part of the morning, but she had all four of her grandchildren for the weekend with her at the hunting lodge in Daniel, the complaint says.
That Sunday morning, she woke to game wardens at the door, says the complaint. Hymus and game warden Dustin Kirsch reportedly entered her home to conduct an interview at 7:15 a.m. and to ask Peterson about her outfitting hunts.
Kirsch pulled a chair for Peterson to sit in the corner with her back pressed to the wall, while he and another agent sat across from her, the document says.
Peterson’s complaint says she answered all the game wardens’ questions until Kirsch and the other agent “turned the interview into an interrogation” by allegedly calling her a liar, yelling at her and making her feel like she was under arrest.
She was not allowed to use her phone or talk to her husband, the complaint says.
Her grandchildren “were starting to wake up and were all wondering why armed men were in the house,” the complaint continues, adding that soon after the children woke, Peterson was served with search warrants.
She claims the search warrants were based upon numerous false material statements, weren’t particularized and were overbroad.
The grandchildren, who were 12 years old, were allegedly separated and questioned “to the point of tears.”
Agents took Peterson’s phone and computers — a total of 11 devices — the document says.
“Plaintiff was told she would need to unlock the devices and give any passwords if she wanted to get them returned,” says the complaint.
Kirsch reportedly returned some of the devices days later.
The document says agents gave a hard drive to the Sublette County Attorney’s Office on Sept. 22, 2021, so prosecutors could upload any and all discovery regarding the allegations against Peterson.
By Sept. 30, the Sublette County Attorney’s Office proposed a protective order of confidentiality to restrict dissemination of sensitive, private information from Peterson’s phone and devices.
The court entered the protective order Oct. 1, 2021. Three days later, the county attorney’s office allegedly disclosed more than 3 terabytes of data from Peterson’s phone and computer.
Over the next two months, “it became clear that the scope of the search and seizure of (Peterson’s) phone and computers exceeded the scope of the warrant,” says the complaint.
Medical photos, medical records, attorney-client communications were not redacted from discovery, and government personnel disseminated sensitive information to other people, outside the scope of the warrant, the complaint alleges.
Peterson’s lawsuit says this was a violation of her privacy.
On May 9, 2022, the Sublette County Attorney’s Office conceded that Peterson’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the complaint adds.
Lot Of ‘Work Done’
At some point in the case, Peterson was helping pack in a personal hunting camp with retired Sublette County Deputy Dan McClure, when McClure said he’d had a conversation with Hymus. Hymus had reportedly told McClure that he and other Wyoming Game and Fish personnel had retrieved several photos and medical records from Peterson’s personal computers and phone.
Hymus had told McClure that McClure wouldn’t recognize Peterson, because she’d had a lot of “work done,” says the complaint, adding that the statements referred to several seized nude photos of previous plastic surgery.
“Warden Hymus made these disclosures for the purpose of intentionally embarrassing (Peterson), causing emotional harm and invading Plaintiff’s privacy,” the complaint says.
Peterson’s complaint says that Wyoming State Board of Outfitters and Guides members Lee Livingston and Bill Beres talked about her case at a dinner party, and dissuaded an outfitter not to buy Peterson’s outfitting business or be associated with it.
“He was spooked,” the complaint says of the outfitter. “And for this reason he backed out of the purchase and involvement with (Peterson’s business) Big Country Outfitters.”
Peterson’s civil claims are as follows:
Invasion of privacy.
Unreasonable search and seizure, against the game wardens and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Malicious prosecution against game warden Dustin Kirsch and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
A claim that Kirsch and the Sublette County Sheriff’s Department abused the rules of legal process.
False arrest and imprisonment by the game wardens for the alleged false premises of the warrant.
Denial of right to counsel, against Hymus and Kirsch.
Trespass, against the game wardens.
“Conversion,” which is a civil theft charge, against Kirsch, regarding the technology devices.
Slander and defamation, against Wyoming State Board of Outfitters and Guides members Lee Livingston and Bill Beres.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Peterson is asking for all economic and non-economic damages available to her as compensation, plus punitive (meaning, for punishment) damages against Kirsch and the Sublette County Sheriff’s Department; attorney’s fees and costs; compensation for damages to her reputation; pre-judgement interest, and any other costs and fees associated with her lawsuit.
Hunting Violations Charged
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department declined Friday to comment, noting it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Sublette County Sheriff KC Lehr did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the state Board of Professional Outfitters and Guides.
Peterson’s case garnered some media attention at its outset. She was originally charged with 19 hunting violations in Sublette County Circuit Court.
With state courts closed Friday to observe Veteran’s Day, Cowboy State Daily was not able by publication time to learn the outcome of the case.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.