DNR to request that charges be dismissed in Connersville deer case


A deer dispute that threatened to put an Indiana couple in jail for rescuing an injured animal has taken an unexpected turn.

After the Governor asked the Department of Natural Resources to review the case, DNR decided to ask Decatur County Prosecutor Joe Clark to drop the criminal charges against the couple. Ultimately, the buck stops with Clark.

There's no way for Jeff and Jennifer Counceller to know if the baby deer they rescued two years ago is still alive.

"We don't see her a whole lot anymore," said Connersville Police Officer Jeff Counceller at his lawyer's office Friday.

In their hearts, though, the Councellers believe it's Dani that still sometimes shows up with other deer to feed behind their Connersville home.

"Absolutely it's her," said Jeff.

By next week, the Councellers will find out if, like Dani, they too are free from charges of illegal harboring a wild animal, charges that could have put them behind bars for 60 days.

"We didn't intentionally do wrong," said Jennifer Counceller of the couple's efforts to rescue Dani.

The DNR saw it differently and charged with couple after their plans to euthanize Dani were thwarted when someone let her out of the pen the Councellers had built for her in their backyard.

The couple said all along, they were planning to release her back into the wild last fall, but were waiting for the crops to come out so she would have a better chance of survival with a plentiful and easy food source.

Jennifer Counceller's father was questioned by the DNR about Dani's escape the morning she was to be put down.

"He's never admitted to letting her go and we didn't really do a lot of questioning to him," said Jennifer. "I'm not sorry that she got to live and didn't have to be executed that day, put down. No, I'm not sorry."

No one, though, has ever admitted to setting Dani free, but the Councellers have said it was not them.

"They were coming out do it that day, until I went out to basically tell her, to see her before it happened and she wasn't there," explained Jennifer.

The DNR has now reversed their position and asked the Decatur County Prosecutor to drop the charges.

"When this is all said and done, the deer survived and there's no winners in this except for the deer," said Jeff.

The Counceller's and Dani's story caused a national outcry of online petitions with thousands of signatures, a Facebook group in support of dropping the charges against the Councellers and Twitter handles like "Bambi Gate".

The Counceller's case even got the attention of Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who asked the DNR to review it, but said he believed the DNR officers had acted appropriately.

"She's captured the world, but you know she captured us that day," said Jennifer of all the attention.

"She's alive and she's doing well," Jeff added.

A licensed wildlife rehabilitator says the Councellers didn't do Dani any favors and neither will the state by dropping the charges.

"This is a big problem here in Indiana," said Kristen Heitman with Providence Wildlife.

"We need to make a statement that people can't do this," she added, saying since the Counceller's story came out, other people who've rescued wild animals have called her and asked to turn them in to Providence Wildlife.

Heitman has rehabilitated wild animals for more than 10 years.

"You need to do what's best for the animal, not for your own heart," Heitman said. "That means getting that animal to the right place.

Heitman says, by law, the Councellers had 24 hours to turn Dani over to a licensed rehabilitator.

"Rehabilitators are trained to have minimal contact with creatures. We feed them. We change their bedding, but we have minimal contact," explained Heitman. "We don't want them getting used to humans."

The Councellers said they tried to find a deer farm for Dani after they found her and nursed her back to health, but every one they called said they were full.

When DNR discovered the Councellers still had Dani, they decided the deer had had too much human contact and needed to be put down because she was a threat.

"Any wild animal can become tame, but there's still a wildness in them," explained Heitman. "You never know when its going to come out and that's when you can get hurt.

"We don't want to imprint animals. We don't want to get them used to humans," Heitman said.

"We're not experts, but we did, I think, an expert job in rehabilitating her," said Jeff Counceller of their efforts to save Dani and set her free.

Considering if the deer had gotten too used to human contact through imprinting, Jeff said, "She left an imprint on me."

The Councellers said they're considering getting more closely involved with wildlife rehabilitation and would be willing to work with the same agency, the DNR, that was once seeking to charge them.

The couple said they realize nature can be cruel, but when it came to this little deer, they couldn't be and did what they thought was right for it.

Earlier version

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources will ask that the charges be dismissed against a Connersville couple for the illegal taking of a deer.

The story about a Connersville couple nursing an injured fawn back to health has gained national attention.

Jeff Counceller, a Connersville Police officer, and his wife Jennifer, faced charges for rescuing the wild animal two years ago.

This week, Governor Mike Pence weighed in, asking DNR to reevaluate the case. As a result of the governor's request, the DNR has re-examined the case and is seeking dismissal of the charges. Pence said he believed DNR had acted appropriately.

Douglas Brown, Decatur County Chief Deputy Prosecutor, says they're expecting a written statement from DNR sometime next week. Once the prosecutor's office receives the statement, they'll review it and make a decision. As of this week they have not dropped the charges.

The allegations in this case are that the Councellers kept a deer in captivity for 23 months, violating Indiana Code 14-22-38-4, which states that unlawful possession of deer is a class C misdemeanor. 

"We hope that the Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana legislature will take this opportunity to review that statute and decide if matters like these allegations should be handled as crimes or infractions in the future," Brown said.

"I've caught a guy that's killed three people," explained Jeff Counceller in an interview with Eyewitness News last week.

Counceller has spent his 14-year career as a police officer, locking up the bad guys.

"We've never had any criminal convictions. We're good people," added his wife Jennifer.

The Councellers, though, have found themselves on the other side of the law recently. The couple were facing a potential 60 days behind bars.

The reason comes down to a little deer Jeff rescued two years ago after he found it injured on a porch during a police call.

"I was gonna put her back in the woods, but I seen the injuries and I knew they were life threatening so I called Jennifer," recalled Jeff.

Jennifer, a nurse, thought she could help.

"I couldn't let her just die there," said Jennifer.

"We called her little orphan Dani. She's definitely changed our lives," she added.

The couple nursed Dani back to health, even bottle feeding her.

"I had to set my alarm every two hours. We just kind of took turns. Every two hours we had to feed her and irrigate her wounds and spray more medicine on it," explained Jennifer.

"I had her standing up on the second day that I got her back and she was you know, walking and I knew she was making improvements," said Jennifer.

Not enough, though, said the Councellers to just release the fawn back into the wild quickly.

"She was just too small to survive," Jennifer explained.

At one point, the Councellers said they called several deer habitats across the state to see if one of them could take Dani. The couple said they were told that they were too full at that point. However, it's illegal to take in a wild animal in Indiana.

The Councellers built a pen for Dani in their backyard, right near the woods, until the deer could grow bigger and stronger.

"She would run around. She would play. We would feed her crack cord and deer chow and other things. Again, we knew someday that we needed to turn her loose," explained Jeff.

"It was never a secret that we had the deer. Everybody knew we had the deer. We never kept it a secret. We talked about it openly," said Jennifer.

Last summer, the Councellers said they were getting ready to let Dani go, but were waiting for the corn crops to mature so she would have something to eat when they released her.

"We had already started decreasing our contact with her, trying to kind of dehumanize her and you know, get her used to us not being there," explained Jennifer.

"We were about six weeks away from turning her loose," added Jeff.

Last July though, the Councellers said they got a visit from an officer with the Department of Natural Resources.

"He asked me if we still had the deer and I told him I did," recalled Jennifer.

"He told me that I could maybe call Indianapolis and maybe get a rescue permit until you know, we could get her released back into the wild. So that's what I tried to do," Jennifer continued.

Jennifer said when she called the DNR's state office, she was turned down.

"She basically just told me that I was in illegal possession of the deer and that they would not give me a rescue permit," recalled Jennifer.

"It just kind of all went downhill from there," she continued.

According to the Councellers, DNR officers told them they would have to put Dani down because she had been around humans too long. .

"She was a threat to society is what they said," recalled Jeff.

"Their original plan was to shoot her with a rifle," said Jennifer.

"Then they found a vet that was going to euthanize her and we had to pay the fee and they was going to let us bury her on our property," she continued.

The day officers were supposed to come and euthanize Dani, someone left the gate to her pen open and Dani escaped.

The Councellers said they did not open the pen that day, but believe someone who knew what was going to happen to Dani, did.

The affidavit of probable cause charge the couple with harboring a wild animal said that DNR officers questioned Jennifer's father about Dani getting loose. He was never charged.

The Councellers can't be sure what had become of Dani. They think she might be one of the many deer who come around their property from time to time.

"If I'm out there and the others run quick, there's one that won't," explained Jennifer.

"In my heart, I know it's her. But I'm happy that it's her and I'm happy she's with the other deer and that's getting to live her life," she added.

While Dani, the deer may be free, a jury must decide if the Councellers share the same fate.

"I'd rather go to trial. I feel like I'm gonna stand up for what I know is right," said Jennifer.

"It's a complete waste of taxpayer's money. What they should have done is write us a ticket," added Jeff.

A special prosecutor from Decatur County has been called in to prosecute the case, along with a special judge from Union County.

The Councellers said they believe that's to avoid a conflict of interest because Jeff is a Connersville police officer and Jennifer works part time as a jail nurse in Fayette County.

"There's less paperwork on felonies that what they've done in this process," said Jeff.

"There was no criminal intent here. We didn't go out and poach a deer. We didn't kill a deer without a tag. We didn't, you know, go out and steal her from the woods and plan on keeping her as a pet," added Jennifer.

"She deserved a chance to live," said Jeff about Dani.

The Councellers said they just wanted to give the deer a fighting chance. They never counted on Dani's fighting chance, leading to a legal fight for them.

A Facebook page has been set up in support of the Councellers.