Just past midnight Saturday in Little Torch Key, Deputy Austin Hopp pulled over a black Hyundai Sonata with a broken tail light.
Hopp wasn't surprised to find that Erik Damas Acosta, an 18-year-old from Miami Gardens, had a friend in the passenger seat. It’s what was in the backseat and the trunk that the Monroe County deputy found a little unsettling: a pair of Florida Key doe hogtied at their feet with twine and a contorted, full-grown buck, also tied up.
“The Key deer appeared to be alive. The Key deer that extended from the trunk had fresh blood on its head,” Hopp wrote in his offense report.
Damas Acosta’s excuse: He wanted to take pictures with the federally protected animals.
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“Erik lured the Key deer close with pieces of bread, grabbed them, bound their feet with ropes and put them in his car,” the deputy said.
The incident, first reported by Katie Atkins of the Keynoter, quickly caught the attention of local activists. Dan Clark, manager of the National Key Deer Refuge, said the 80-pound buck was likely bloodied from thrashing its head around while trapped in the trunk of the Hyundai.
Robert Klepper, spokesman for the lead investigating agency, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said all three deer were tied up and had injuries consistent with struggling in a confined space.
“It was disturbing,” he said.
Damas Acosta told Hopp that his friend Tumani Younge, 23, was asleep when the endangered animals were captured on Big Pine Key and that Younge had nothing to do with their apprehension. Younge’s arrest affidavit said he refused to speak with law enforcement officers.
The three deer — only about 600 are believed to be in the wild — were released on Little Torch Key near where the car was stopped. Clark told the Keynoter that the doe raced into the woods. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers will spend a few weeks observing the buck to make sure he’s healing properly.
The deer, which were found about 30 miles north of Key West, “had wounds all over their body and head and were struggling to break free. Blood was soaked into the seats and deer hair was heavily scattered throughout,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer Clayton Wagner wrote in the arrest warrants.
Little Torch Key resident Linda Muncy said she saw the buck near her home Monday and that it was lying down and one of its legs appeared injured. She said she has been giving him fresh water and feeding him — even though she knows it’s strictly forbidden.
“His head was covered in blood. He’s in velvet, which means his antlers are growing in,” Muncy said. “He moved. But one of his legs his injured. He’s not going far.”
Damas and Younge, who lives in Tamarac, were charged with three felony counts of wounding a protected species, three misdemeanor counts of taking deer out of season, three counts of animal cruelty and three counts of illegal possession of Key deer.
The felony charges could land the two in prison for up to five years and cost them $5,000 each. They were booked into the Monroe County Jail on Stock Island. Their bonds were set at $57,000 apiece.