Leadwood Police Officer Eric Smith had his day in court two months ago with a trial by judge. But the judge didn’t give him a verdict until Oct. 24. The verdict: not guilty on both counts of stealing.
Smith was charged in Perry County with stealing and stealing by deceit, both Class C felonies. He was accused of taking money from more than 30 customers for taxidermy work between September of 2011 and December of 2012 and not doing the work or returning the customers’ property. His taxidermy business was located in a garage next door to his home on Route O in Perry County.
His one-day trial was held in Cape Girardeau on a change of venue.
Perry County Prosecuting Attorney Thomas Hoeh couldn’t be reached for comment on the verdict.
During the trial, a conservation agent and a deputy testified the investigation began after numerous customers complained that they had paid Smith and he hadn’t done the work. Investigators said that while he had not returned the property to the owners, he did have excellent record keeping.
When Conservation Agent Grant Gelly spoke to Smith days before the warrant was served, Smith told him he was getting out of the taxidermy business completely and had sent a certified letter to his customers a week prior about customers retrieving their property and getting refunds.
When Gelly asked to see his shop, Smith told him that his shop keys were in his personal vehicle in Leadwood. He had driven his Leadwood patrol car home to Perry County that day.
When Perry County Cpl. Jason Kelly interviewed him days later, Smith admitted that there was no certified letter and that he had not refunded any deposits. There were also no finished mounts found in the shop. About five deer capes were missing, which Smith said had rotted and were discarded. He said he bought replacement capes for those.
Smith’s attorney, Jacob Zimmerman, said Hoeh would have presented a wonderful case if it had been a civil trial for a contract breach.
Zimmerman said Hoeh had not proven the element of criminal intent ... that Smith took the money and property with the intent at the time of not returning the customers’ money or property.
He said Smith had tagged and labeled all of the animal parts with who they belonged to. While Smith was on the stand he presented numerous receipts of purchases he had made between the fall of 2011 and the fall of 2012 to continue his taxidermy business, receipts for things like blades and chemicals.
On the stand Smith admitted he had gotten behind with orders. He admitted to lying to customers about how much progress he was making on their animal hides and mounts. He admitted that if a single customer had two mounts, he would tell that customer he was done with the first mount and was getting ready to finish the second mount. He admitted this was a lie to “buy more time.” He also admitted to not answering or returning many of the customers’ phone calls.
Smith explained why he had gotten behind. He said his wife asked him to move out of their house in April of 2012 and they remained separated until some time in July 2012. His part-time job of being a Leadwood police officer turned into a full-time position in August of 2012 so he had less time to devote to the taxidermy business. He said he averages 42 hours a week at Leadwood. He also has three children to raise.
“He failed miserably as an entrepreneur, that happens all the time in America ...” Zimmerman said, adding that’s why they have civil courts.
Smith lost a civil suit with one customer this year. A judgment/order of garnishment was entered against him this spring.