80-Year-Old Montana Man Gets Two Months In Jail For Killing Grizzly, Evidence Tampering

An 80-year-old Montana man was told Tuesday he’ll serve two months in jail and pay a $10,000 fine after covering up the killing of a grizzly bear on his property. The sentence was stiffer than both the defense and prosecution had agreed to prior.

Clair McFarland

June 12, 20245 min read

Grizzly idaho
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A federal judge Tuesday sentenced an 80-year-old man to two months in jail for covering up the shooting of a grizzly bear on his property four years ago.

Othel Lee Pearson, 80, of Troy, Montana, also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine in his federal case of failing to report the taking of a grizzly bear and evidence tampering.

Pearson pleaded guilty to both charges in February. His defense attorney has argued that he acted in self-defense when shooting the bear, but that he takes responsibility for trying to hide the act.

That’s Not Ham

The investigation started Nov. 23, 2020, when a warden with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) found a dead grizzly sow dumped on Pipe Creek Road south of Yaak, Montana. The carcass appeared to have been killed elsewhere.

The bear was partially skinned, missing two quarters and paws, says an evidentiary affidavit by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Mona Iannelli.

The bear had been microchipped and had a GPS collar, but the collar was gone. The bear’s two ear tags and lip tattoo had been cut from its carcass.

Iannelli sent the bear to the FWP lab for a necropsy.

Data from the bear’s GPS collar taken before it was killed showed the bear died at about 8:55 p.m. on Pearson’s property, 40 yards from his house.

Iannelli checked the state and federal wildlife agencies Dec. 14, 2020, and no one had reported killing the grizzly, says the affidavit.

Bearing a warrant, she and other agents searched Pearson’s home two days later and found a bag of meat in Pearson’s freezer labelled “ham,” which analysts later determined belonged to the grizzly bear.

Two years later, a hiker reportedly found a garbage bag containing the grizzly bear’s claws and ear tag on public land adjacent to Pearson’s property, the affidavit says.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Montana charged Pearson more than three years after the crime on Jan. 22, 2024.

Tougher Than Recommended

The judgment U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy, of Montana, handed down Tuesday was stiffer than the joint recommendation the defense and prosecution had agreed on prior.

Pearson’s attorney Sarah Lockwood and Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Tanner had both asked for a sentence of three years’ probation and $8,000 in fines.

Instead, Molloy sentenced Pearson to two months’ incarceration followed by three years’ probation, with $10,000 in fines.

At a maximum, Pearson could have faced 20 years and six months in prison for the two crimes.

‘Devoted Family Man’

In her sentencing memorandum urging the lesser sentence, Lockwood touted Pearson as an exemplary man.

These are his first criminal convictions. He excelled in academics and high school sports, earning a college scholarship to play football. He went on to coach youth sports and become a college professor, Lockwood wrote.

“Othel is most proud to be a devoted family man who has raised four successful children with his beloved wife of 62 years,” she added. “Othel is beloved by his family and friends, and he shows them all extraordinary kindness.”

Pearson and his wife “dropped everything” to help care for their grandson when their daughter was diagnosed with cancer. They help with their other grandchildren and take them on outdoor adventures, the memorandum says.

Lockwood told the court that Pearson once saved his wife from a house fire that destroyed their off-grid cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

‘No Other Choice’

Pearson had “no other choice” than to kill the apex predator on his land to defend his family, says the memorandum, adding that his only real crimes were the actions he took to cover up the killing, but that he’s not accustomed to turning to the government for help with “things that happen on his private property.”

He’s moved into downtown Troy, Montana, so that he doesn’t have to face such a situation again.

“He no longer has to carry a weapon to safely use the outhouse at night, or turn off the generator alone as he crunches through the snow trying to tune in for any threats with just one working ear,” Lockwood wrote.

Now barred from owning firearms as a convicted felon, he’s taken to gardening and long walks with his wife, she added.

That Works, Says Prosecutor

Tanner had agreed with Lockwood that Pearson should be given probation.

Tanner noted Pearson’s move into town, his advanced age and the fact that he’s reportedly sold all his guns.

The government chose to charge Pearson for not reporting the taking of a grizzly bear, rather than for unlawful taking of a grizzly bear, because it’s hard to prove a defendant didn’t act in self-defense when shooting a grizzly bear, says Tanner’s sentencing memorandum.

“To be sure, the defendant’s killing of the grizzly bear and his subsequent efforts to conceal the killing are serious offenses, especially considering the sensitivity of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population,” wrote the prosecutor. But Pearson showed “clear contrition” over his efforts to hide the killing.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter