Snake charges under review

Snake charges under review

March 31st, 2011 by Todd South in News

Chuck Hurd, 38, left, makes an appearance in Judge Christy Mahn Sell's courtroom Wednesday morning during a preliminary hearing on 48 wildlife law violation charges in in correlation to the transportation of snakes. Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Friends of an East Ridge man who died from a copperhead bite in January - including three men who took snakes from the victim's home before state wildlife officers arrived to investigate the death - were allowed more time Wednesday to decipher the charges against them.

Chuck Hurd, 38; Tim Lunsford, 36; Derek Schrader, 20; and Michael Clark, 32, face varying charges related to illegal wildlife possession and transport in cases involving 54 snakes, 50 of which were venomous.

At their attorneys' request, a hearing set for Wednesday was moved to May 16.

Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Ben Boyer said the new date would help attorneys on both sides of the cases. He also said the prosecution made a plea offer to the defendants, but would not disclose details of the offer.

All four men are free on bond and attended Wednesday's hearing. All declined to speak to the media.

Lunsford's attorney, Gerald Webb, said that one of the wildlife possession charges related to the type of snake was dismissed.

"The reason it got dismissed was because it wasn't the type of snake they [authorities] thought it was to begin with," Webb explained.

State wildlife laws assign a range of penalties for different types of animals. In these cases, officers have listed puff adders, Western diamondback rattlesnakes and a Blacktail rattlesnake - all venomous - in court documents.

Webb said the distinction between the actual types of snakes seized and what the men were charged with must be cleared up before the next hearing.

On Jan. 29, Wade Westbrook, 26, of East Ridge, died from an allergic reaction to a copperhead bite. Police said Lunsford, Schrader and Clark went to Westbrook's home within hours of his death and collected his snakes. They were in and out before agents with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency arrived, documents state.

TWRA officers arrested Hurd, a self-proclaimed snake expert, on Feb. 2 after they claimed that he "transported and housed" a dozen "highly venomous snakes" through Tennessee.

Officers charged Hurd, a former Chattanooga resident now living in Gate City, Va., with four counts for each snake - possession of dangerous wildlife, holding such wildlife, possession without documentation and importation without permits, according to court documents.

The three others turned themselves in to authorities in March.

TWRA officers later confiscated 42 snakes from them, some of which authorities said were Westbrook's. The men were charged with possession of wildlife without permits, illegal taking and transportation of wildlife and illegal possession of class II wildlife.

Westbrook sought out Hurd in 2007 to learn about venomous snake handling, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.

TWRA officials have emphasized that none of the charges against the defendant have "bearing on" Westbrook's death.