An Outdoor Channel host and Miss America contestant admitted in court Wednesday that she illegally killed a brown bear while on a Western Alaska hunt being filmed for her show in May.
Theresa Vail, the 25-year-old star of the single-season reality TV show "Limitless with Theresa Vail," had purchased a $500 nonresident brown bear tag for the guided hunt. But two bears were killed. The problematic hunt never aired on her show.
When the bear didn't die right away with the first shot, her guide told her to fire again. She had lost sight of the original bear and when she reset and fired, she hit a different bear, a sow, by mistake, according to her lawyer, Kevin Fitzgerald.
The bigger problem is what happened next, lawyers on both sides said. Vail falsified information on a second tag brought in later in an effort to cover up the illegal kill, prosecutor Aaron Peterson said. Fitzgerald contended the guides – whose cases haven't been resolved -- encouraged "a scheme of misconduct."
Vail, testifying by phone from Kansas, where she lives, pleaded guilty in Aniak District Court to a single misdemeanor, taking a brown or grizzly bear without a tag. The state agreed to drop a second charge of falsification related to the backdated tag. She was sentenced to a year of probation, a $750 fine and $1,300 in restitution to be split with her guides, if they are convicted.
The hunt began May 18 and the illegal kill was eight days in, on May 26. She was charged Nov. 16, but the case didn't get publicity until early December.
A Christmas day post on her Facebook feed alluded to it.
"I want to say thank you to each and every one of you that supported me through the PR nightmare that ensued a couple weeks ago. God has blessed me with peace in whatever comes of it," Vail's post said. "All I'm going to say is this; not once have I claimed to be an expert. All I have attested to is being passionate about the outdoors and getting more women involved in hunting and shooting."
Her "Limitless" show aired during the summer and early fall of 2015, but that hunt wasn't part of the program. She's now hosting another Outdoor Channel show, "NRA All Access," presented by Italian shotgun manufacturer Franchi.
"Outdoor Channel is committed to legal and ethical hunting," the network said in a statement last year after charges were filed. "We have strict policies and procedures in place that require all of our talent and producers to abide by all hunting regulations."
Vail had never gone after big game, and had never been in Alaska before, Fitzgerald told Magistrate Judge John McConnaughy. Her Outdoor Channel bio describes her as "an avid hunter and marksman, as well as an ambassador for Bass Pro Shops, Franchi Shotguns, and the National Rifle Association." Vail, Miss Kansas in 2013, placed in the top 10 in the 2014 Miss America Pageant, and received attention for being the first contestant to openly display tattoos.
After the hunt, Vail was guilt-ridden and wanted to come forward, Fitzgerald said. A crew member reported it with her permission, he said in court. But an attorney for the guide said the production crew member was the one upset. Troopers said her film crew reported the second kill on June 3, after the team left Alaska. Troopers reviewed footage of the kills for their investigation.
The state has designated the area near the Aniak River north of Bethel for predator control, and a hunter there is allowed to kill two bears – with two tags in hand.
Hunters must follow the rules, McConnaughy told Vail.
"You've been up here to hunt grizzly bear and you probably had a chance to see, this is sort of a special place," the judge said. Up the Aniak River, "I stop at any gravel bar and I see grizzly bear tracks and wolf tracks and moose tracks. And there's just not a lot of places left on this planet like that."
A system of enforced hunting laws helps ensure abundant wildlife, he said.
Honest mistakes sometimes happen like when someone shoots a moose that's too small, McConnaughy said. Hunters who quickly report such behavior might receive a notice of violation, like a traffic ticket, and a fine.
But Vail's case went beyond that, he said.
Vail said in a statement last month that she was following the advice of the guides to allow the second bear to be improperly tagged.
The master guide overseeing the hunt, Michael "Wade" Renfro, was alerted and after discussing it over with the group, flew over them and dropped another grizzly tag out of his Piper, the charges say. Vail signed and backdated it.
"A few days later, the film crew and I reported the incident and have since fully cooperated with the proper authorities," Vail said in the statement. "I am deeply sorry for my mistakes."
Renfro and assistant guide Joseph Miller – who was in the field with Vail -- also have been charged in the hunt. Renfro, who owns Bethel-based Renfro's Alaskan Adventures, has a good reputation and has worked alongside state and federal wildlife officers for years, said his attorney, Myron Angstman of Bethel.
"This is an anomaly," Angstman said.
Renfro wasn't on scene and likely wouldn't have faced any charges had the second kill been called into troopers right away, Angstman said. He knew the area has a two-bear limit, and dropped off the second tag in an effort to protect Vail, Angstman said.
"He didn't want to embarrass her or her TV show," the attorney said. "He thought it might ruin her career."
They talked at length before Vail back-dated the tag, Angstman said.
Renfro admits he made a mistake, his lawyer said. He is trying to resolve his own court case, in which he faces three misdemeanors, and also may have to go before the state Big Game Commercial Services Board.
"Whether he gets to remain in business is at stake," Angstman said.
As part of her sentence, Vail agreed to pay her own way to Aniak to testify against the guides, if it comes to that. She also had to forfeit the illegal bear hide.
"We do take guides engaging in this type of activity seriously," Peterson said after the hearing. "We take guided clients covering up these kinds of things seriously as well."