Pleasant Point hopes end of deer season brings an end illegal hunting on closed golf course

Gunshots and the roar of a muffler-less pickup were all Paula Loftis heard as she stepped out of her Lady's Island home last October.

"I was dumbfounded by what I saw," Loftis said. "There was a man standing in the back of this pickup truck, shooting at something as the truck drove by me. I'm lucky I wasn't killed."

It was a long hunting season for residents of Pleasant Point. Hunters on several occasions illegally blasted away at deer, racoons and other animals in thecommunity. Clad in camoflague and armed with rifles and shotguns, 15 to 20 deer hunters hid in the thick woods, using open expanses of the closed and overgrown Country Club of Beaufort golf course to illegally hunt deer, state wildlife officials say.

State law prohibits trespassing to hunt on private property, hunting one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset, and hunting within 300 yards of a home, all of which Pleasant Point residents say happened in their backyards this past deer season.

"The sounds of shotguns and rifles are heard in this community all year long, but especially during deer season," Loftis said. "These people have no respect for human life or wildlife. They're not hunters, they're killers. It's just flat-out dangerous. It's only a matter of time before one of these bullets goes through someone's window or through someone's brain."

Hunters began appearing in the neighborhood as foliage grew along the golf course, which closed in 2006, said Gerard Smith, secretary of the Pleasant Point Property Owners Association.

"The course had not been tended to at all," Smith said. "The grass was 6 to 8 feet tall, and some of these guys must have thought 'Hey, there's a wide-open place where we can sneak out and hunt.' We don't want any of it going on out here."

The association purchased the course, clubhouse and tennis courts for $1.15 million late last year and plans to reopen the club.

Illegal hunting in Pleasant Point has been a problem for years but appeared to intensify during last year's hunting season from Oct. 3 to Jan. 1, said Sgt. David Vaughn, a DNR law enforcement officer.

"You're shooting into a patch of woods, and you have no idea what's on the other side of those woods," Vaughn said. "Those woods may not be as deep as you think it is. At Pleasant Point, it'd be hard to go anywhere out there and not be within 300 yards of a residence. We are definitely aware that this is going on and we are investigating to make a case against those responsible."

State law bans pointing a loaded or unloaded firearm at another person or firing a gun into or at a house. Cpl. Robin McIntosh, spokeswoman for the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, said deputies have been called to the area to reports of suspicious vehicles and shots fired, but the activity was deemed to be related to hunting and the investigation turned over to DNR.

Vaughn said he cited one juvenile in November for trespassing, issued warnings to two others and confiscated the buck they'd killed. The teenager paid the $110 ticket, Vaughn said.

"It was a seven- or eight-point buck, not a trophy but a nice, young buck," Vaughn said. "It was a total waste."

Though deer season is over, Vaughn said DNR stepped up patrols in the area, sometimes in unmarked vehicles, to help catch out-of-season hunters in the act.

Pleasant Point residents also are on the look-out, said Lisa O'Brien, president of the property owners association.

"We are paying attention now," O'Brien said. "We're looking for people that aren't supposed to be here, vehicles that aren't supposed to be here and anything else that we don't regularly see. The residents are going to be vigilant."

Those found guilty of illegal hunting can be fined up to $470 and spend 30 days in jail, penalties that pale in comparison to the possible consequences of firing high-powered rifles too close to people's homes, Vaughn said.

"You have to look at the possible consequences of your actions -- you could hit someone or their home," Vaughn said. "It's very dangerous."

In addition to pressing criminal charges, the DNR levies points against individual hunting and fishing licenses for violations. If a hunter or fisherman receives 18 points against their license in a year, they receive an automatic one-year hunting and fishing ban in South Carolina.

Some violations, like criminal and negligent use of a firearm and hunting from a public road, carry mandatory suspensions ranging from one to five years, according to state law.

Meanwhile at Pleasant Point, the grass at the golf course has been cut and residents hope for a less eventful deer season next October.

"It's very irresponsible for anyone to use a gun or hunt in a residential area and we're hopeful that we won't ever have this problem again," O'Brien said. "The course and the grounds of the club are being maintained and we really think that will be the key."