The following story was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah hunting guide Wade Lemon faces five years in state prison for the death of a Carbon County bear killed during a guided hunt on May 18, 2018.
But Lemon, a well-known guide, didn’t pull the trigger — Donald Trump Jr. did, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Trump Jr. is not named in a recent filing against Lemon, but the DNR confirmed his identity as the person named in the felony complaint as Lemon’s “client” on the hunt. Prosecutors have indicated there was no evidence showing Trump Jr. would have known about the alleged baiting that went on during the hunt.
Without naming Trump Jr., Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said the hunter in the case “was actually a victim and a now a possible witness in a fraudulent scheme to lead the hunter to believe it was actually a legitimate Wild West hunting situation.”
The charges against Lemon from the Trump Jr. hunt were filed just before the four-year statute of limitations expired. The DNR initially investigated allegations of illegal bearbaiting on the hunt in 2018 and closed the case later that year.
On Sept. 3, 2020, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project requested files on closed investigations against Wade Lemon Hunting. The DNR provided files on cases dating back to 2009 except for the case on the 2018 Trump Jr. hunt. DNR had decided to reopen that case and denied the records request, stating the release would interfere with the now “open” investigation.
DNR turned the case over to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has close ties to Trump, having campaigned for him and even flying to Nevada to investigate the election results after Trump’s defeat at the polls and signed on to a lawsuit claiming “unlawful election results.” The Attorney General’s Office reinvestigated the case for months, then handed it off to the Davis County Attorney’s Office to screen for filing of charges.
Documents show investigations into Lemon’s organization for the past decade — allegations of cruel and illegal big game baiting practices.
“Lots of quality time in the woods hanging out at 10,000 feet. #outdoors #weekend #adventure #cabin #utah,” reads a May 19, 2018 Instagram post from Trump Jr. The president’s son is decked out in camouflage standing casually at the edge of a cliff before a sweeping view of rolling forests, hills and plateaus. The post is tagged “Utah” and the caption reads “Great weekend in Utah with some good friends in the outdoors.”
Trump Jr. was in Utah to help launch Hunter Nation, a hunting advocacy group. That group would later launch its own super PAC, Hunter Nation Action, which spent $96,997 in ads against Democrats in the 2020 election, according to the campaign spending transparency site Open Secrets.
The organization formed in 2018 and was cofounded by Utahn Don Peay, the Utah campaign manager for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“You will have to go a long way to find a bigger advocate for our hunting lifestyle, a more passionate hunter and conservationist than Don, Jr.,” reads a post Hunter Nation released in the fall of 2019 as part of a raffle for members to win a trip hunting elk in Utah with the president’s son.
“The opportunity to share a hunting camp with him is truly priceless,” the post reads.
There were no pictures of Don Jr.’s kills from his May 2018 trip to Utah on his social media feed, but DNR confirmed that over the course of two days the president’s son bagged two kills that many would consider once-in-a-lifetime hunts — a bear on May 18 and a cougar on May 19, 2018.
Charging documents allege Lemon’s outfitters illegally used bait on the bear shot by Trump Jr. According to the document, a witness identified Lemon and his employees during the hunt in May 2018 and was able to identify Lemon over radio traffic, giving instructions to his employees.
The illegal bait, “a pile of grain, oil and pastries” was discovered with a trail camera pointed right on it with “WLH” (for Wade Lemon Hunting) written on the side and with Lemon’s own telephone number, according to court documents. The charging documents also include evidence from a subordinate confirming Lemon had him place the bait in the location several weeks before the hunt.
Lemon was contacted by phone and said he was surprised by the charges related to the Trump Jr. hunt, saying, “As far as I knew everything was above board,” before ending the call.
A request for comment from The Trump Organization, where Trump Jr. is an executive vice president, was not returned.
Questions about past investigations were emailed to Lemon and a lawyer responded to say he had no comment.
Big clients bag big game
Hunting guides who cater to the wealthy elite have a lot at stake in ensuring successful hunts. These companies employ hunters to scout woods, deserts, mountains and plains for the biggest game, to ensure these high-profile clients have the highest chance for a successful hunt. According to DNR, Wade Lemon Hunting has been investigated eight times for allegedly breaking the law to ensure a successful hunt, though he was not charged with a felony until Tuesday.
On May 25, 2009, Hal Stout, an officer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), was investigating Lemon’s hunting areas for illegal bear bait in the vicinity of Nine Mile Canyon in Carbon county. Stout was inspecting one bait location when “I heard an ATV and ran for concealment,” the report states.
Stout observed a truck with dog boxes roll past and observed the plate as linked to a Lemon employee. After the vehicle passed, the officer located two more illegal bait areas — one with a dead horse carcass covered in branches and a melon rind nearby. He had little time to appraise the situation before a nearby commotion grabbed his attention.
“I heard hounds baying and continued in the direction of the sound,” Stout writes, hearing one individual specifically call for “Wade” asking to have them bring another individual from nearby cabins out to the area. The investigator again monitored from concealment and could not see all the parties involved but was aware that someone was brought out to shoot a treed bear.
According to Stout’s report, Lemon’s employees had treed a bear and built a fire under the tree to keep it from escaping while they waited for their client to be brought to the site.
“At the base and between these two trees I observed a chair made of rocks,” the report reads. “I heard WADE earlier say that the boys had built a fire under the tree and made him a chair.”
The investigator documented multiple examples of violations of state law from the manner of trapping the bear in the tree and the case languished for several years, before being dismissed in June 2012. A remark in the case file notes “that the level of illegality detected was insufficient to justify disclosing investigative techniques used in this case.”
Lemon would face other investigations. In 2011, an informant told DWR Lemon had a mountain lion treed and that “the lion hunter had his own private plane and was flying in tomorrow to shoot it.” Investigators later found the site of the kill.
In 2016 Lemon’s company was investigated for illegally taking a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep harvested in an off-limits area on Utah’s Mount Nebo. DWR did not fault Lemon’s company as the agency at the time had not updated its guidebooks and a DWR employee had given Lemon confirmation that they could lead a guided hunt on the mountain.
In a statement, DNR spokesperson Faith Jolley pointed out that many of these cases are difficult to investigate, sometimes informants won’t come forward and in other cases, evidence of baiting can only be gathered “by requesting a search warrant and setting up trail cameras in the area of the bait station.”
Jolley says that DWR officers generate an average of 2,000 case reports a year for “illegal wildlife activity” investigations. “The majority of these cases conclude either being screened by a county attorney or with an investigation that results in no leads,” Jolley said.
‘Great day on the mountain’
Despite the multiple investigations over the years, former DWR Director Mike Fowlks attended at least one hunt with Lemon’s outfit.
In a May 14, 2020, Instagram post from Wade Lemon Hunting, Fowlks is shown posing with a recently killed bear. The post reads: “Had a great day on the mountain with @mikefowlks Congratulations again Mike on a great boar!”
Fowlks was director during the 2018 investigation and also law enforcement section chief during the times of the previous Lemon investigations. A month after DNR provided records of Lemon investigation files, Fowlks announced his retirement.
Fowlks declined to comment for this story other than to say that the 2020 hunt he went on was not with Lemon personally, but just through his company.