Man accused of poaching deer, elk reaches plea deal

A Rio Arriba County man accused of illegally slaughtering more than a dozen deer and elk will have 41 of the 45 counts pending against him dismissed as part of a plea agreement that requires him to cooperate with the state’s prosecution of his alleged accomplices.

Jacob Leyba, 20, and his friends — Brandon Romero, 21, and Jonathan Romero, 24 — are suspected of conspiring to kill the animals and sell their heads for profit, according to an affidavit for a search warrant filed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

The men killed the animals in the areas of Mud Spring, Echo Canyon, Regina and Youngsville, sawed the heads off most of the animals and left their carcasses to rot, according to the affidavit.

Leyba had faced eight felony charges and 37 misdemeanor counts. He pleaded guilty to four felony counts, with all the other charges against him dismissed as part of the plea deal.

Leyba has yet to be sentenced, but the agreement says the six years in prison he could have faced will be suspended and reduced to a sentence of five years’ probation. The agreement also allows for Leyba to petition the court for a conditional discharge — which means he will not have a felony conviction on his record — if he successfully completes probation.

A spokesman for District Attorney Marco Serna’s office said prosecutors will argue against conditional discharge for Leyba at sentencing.

Leyba’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

On Thursday, Rio Arriba County grand juries indicted the Romero brothers on 20 counts each, including four counts of unlawful taking of big game and waste of game, plus five counts of unlawful possession of game or fish.

A phone message left at their residence was not returned.

Neither of the Romeros has been arrested, according to a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

The men accused of poaching came under suspicion more than a year ago when Game and Fish Officer Ariel Perraglio encountered Leyba hunting near El Vado Lake on New Year’s Day 2018. His firearm was equipped with an artificial light, which is illegal, according to the affidavit.

After arresting Leyba, the game officer wrote in her affidavit, another officer found a bag containing a “bloody saw and several bloody knives” in Leyba’s vehicle. He subsequently confessed he and the Romeros had killed and beheaded multiple deer and elk in the region that winter.

“Mr. Leyba stated that all three individuals were involved in shooting multiple animals, and possessing the heads of these animals, leaving the meat to waste in the field,” the officer wrote.

Based on Leyba’s statements, Game and Fish officers obtained a search warrant for the Romeros’ residence in Española, where they seized the skulls of three elk and seven deer, the affidavit said.

According to court records, Game and Fish officers also found 19 deer skulls and five elk skulls, “deer and elk parts” and multiple knives and saws for cutting and butchering game animals at Leyba’s residence.

Leyba’s address has been listed as being in Española and Chimayó in court records.

The skulls had antlers attached to them, according to court records.

Untreated game skulls are available for as little as $45 online. But stuffed and mounted animal heads with antlers can fetch $1,000 or more, depending on the species.

The Romeros discussed prices, in text messages, according to a search warrant affidavit.