BATON ROUGE, La. — The day that Donald Hodge Sr. fell and died in Allen Parish, state agriculture officials issued a quarantine against his Lake Charles deer farm.
What the officials were after in October 2012 were six does that had been on a Pennsylvania farm tainted with chronic wasting disease. Called CWD, it is to deer what mad cow disease is to cows. Officials wanted to find the does and kill them before CWD became an epidemic in Louisiana.
What the officials got was a big mystery. There were deer at Hodge's farm, but none of them had the tags that should have been on the six does. Hodge himself was lying dead in the woods. Exactly where the does ended up remains unclear. Among the possibilities is that they were smuggled into Mississippi, where they met their end at an illegal deer farm.
Hodge's death and the search for the does unleashed a legal mess that includes civil litigation and a federal investigation. Hodge's son Donald Hodge Jr. is at war with his father's former business partners. The state just wants an end to the legal saga. Meanwhile, government officials want to know what happened to those six does.
CWD is a neurological disorder that causes lesions in the brain. It infects deer and elk. It is contagious and fatal.
As soon as state Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain received word in 2012 that Donald Hodge Sr. might have purchased infected deer from a Pennsylvania farm, he took action. Strain's agency placed a quarantine on the Hodge farm. Strain also halted permits for the importation of rocky mountain elk, red deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer and sika deer into Louisiana. The statewide ban on permits remains in effect.
Hodge operated a white-tailed deer farm in Calcasieu Parish. Such ventures can be profitable because they attract hunting clubs interested in shooting pens. A profitable deer farmer breeds bucks to produce sizable antlers.
The same day the quarantine was placed, Hodge fell out of his deer stand in Allen Parish and died. It was two days before his body was found. His surviving children were left behind to answer questions raised by government officials.
The state insists the paper trail shows the six does in question were supposed to be at the Hodge farm. "That's where they were, until we went to check," said Lafayette attorney Holden Hoggatt, who is representing the state.
Donald Hodge Jr. said the does were never at his father's farm. He said it was convenient for his father's business partners to put the entire blame on a dead man for does that likely were offloaded in the middle of the night and driven into Mississippi to an illegal deer farming operation. "It's hard to ask someone when they're not here anymore," he said.
The uncertainty created a mess. If the does had been at the Hodge farm, even briefly, then the rest of the herd needed to be quarantined and possibly euthanized. If the does were never there, then Donald Hodge Sr.'s children could sell the herd and close down the farm.
Hodge, an attorney in Baton Rouge, sued the Agriculture Department. He objected to the two options he was given for his father's deer farm: A five-year quarantine on the deer there or a killing of the entire herd. The family wanted the quarantine lifted so they could sell the herd.
Eventually, the two parties settled and agreed to a mass killing. More than 100 deer were euthanized, putting Donald Hodge Sr.'s short-lived deer farm out of business. None of the deer tested positive for CWD posthumously.
The state contributed to the euthanization expenses, but Hodge said his family still is out $500,000 for the value of deer who were never sick. He said he turned over his father's business and email records in an attempt to convince the state that the six does were never at the Hodge farm. "For Mike Strain, no amount of proof was good enough for him. It had to be 100 percent," Hodge said.
Hoggatt said the paperwork indicates the does were supposed to be at the Hodge farm. He said the deer had to be euthanized to be tested for CWD.
Hodge reignited his legal quarrel with the state by suing his father's former business partners. He contends the business partners lied about the does being at the Hodge farm simply to cover up their misdeeds. "My dad died the day of the quarantine, so it's convenient to put the blame on him," he said.
The state has intervened to toss out the lawsuit against the business partners. A hearing on a temporary restraining order is scheduled Friday in the 19th Judicial District. Haggatt said the issue has been litigated enough in civil court.
"The matter's been concluded. We'd like to move on to other business," Hoggatt said.
Meanwhile, the state still doesn't know what happened to the six missing does. Federal officials are on the trail.
Jeff Carrier, an attorney for one of Donald Hodge Sr.'s business partners, said he doesn't know the ins and outs of what happened to the does. He said Donald Hodge Sr. was the big ballplayer with the connections for buying deer.
"I believe they're all dead. The person responsible for getting them here is dead now," Carrier said.
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com