A 19-year-old man who said he was trying to get food for his family was cited for a misdemeanor in the shooting death of Ella, a deer that lived in and delighted visitors to Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery.
By MATT CAMPBELL and TONY RIZZO
The Kansas City Star
Phoenix M. Vankirk of Kansas City was issued a ticket Thursday for taking a deer out of season, a code violation punishable by a fine of $1,000 and a year in jail.
Ella was found shot to death Aug. 4 on the grounds of the historic cemetery at Truman Road and Van Brunt Boulevard.
Cemetery officials announced Friday that a memorial service for the deer will be held Sept. 14.
A tipster provided information about Vankirk to a deputy with the Jackson County sheriff’s office, authorities said. The deputy set up a meeting between an investigator with the Missouri Department of Conservation and the tipster, who could be in line to collect $6,500 in reward.
When contacted by investigators, Vankirk said he had no idea the deer was friendly and well known to the community.
According to a statement by the investigator, Vankirk said he saw the deer from the porch of his house nearby on the night of Aug. 3. He told the investigator that he got a .45-caliber handgun, jumped the fence and hid behind a tree until the deer came near him.
“Vankirk stated that he shot the deer and watched it run a short distance and then fall to the ground,” according to the investigator’s report.
Vankirk then realized the cemetery gate was locked and he could not retrieve the carcass, which he said he had wanted for food for his girlfriend and 8-month-old child.
“During the interview, Vankirk stated he wanted to tell the community that he was extremely sorry and that if he could take back his actions, he would,” according to the report.
Investigators said Vankirk lawfully owned the handgun.
Elmwood cemetery officials said they are pleased that someone has been cited.
“It’s certainly in the public interest that the person will be held accountable,” said John Weilert, president of the cemetery board of trustees. “We can only deal with what’s on the books, in terms of laws, but I think the community has pretty well expressed outrage over this kind of behavior, and that’s something that the person is going to have to live with.”
Ella’s improbable story touched people who encountered her and many people who had only read about her.
She was born at the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend 2011. She continued to live among the gravestones and mausoleums after her mother strayed outside the fence and was killed by a vehicle.
Ella became a favorite of cemetery visitors and volunteers, following them around the 43-acre grounds. The deer would stand outside the open doors of the Armour Memorial Chapel during weddings and funerals and would often accompany mourners — at a distance — to the grave site.
Many people said the gentle deer gave them comfort.
“She was such a ray of sunshine,” Elmwood board member Bruce Mathews said after she was killed. “She brought so much life to this place.”
Ella drew national attention last year when she and a wayward dog bonded and were seen constantly together. The dog had to be collected by Wayside Waifs before winter and has since been adopted by a family.
Cemetery officials were careful to treat Ella as a wild animal and not to feed her.
Ella was cremated, and the ashes will be interred during an 11 a.m. public memorial Sept. 14 at the cemetery. Kids who had learned about the deer at a summer camp with the Great Plains SPCA will be invited.
“Ella offered us many teachable moments during her brief life and this, we believe, is a fitting way to close the circle,” the cemetery said in a statement.
Some had hoped the deer’s killer would face a tougher penalty.
“I’m incredibly disappointed,” said Eric Phelps of In Defense of Animals, which put up $1,500 in reward money in the case. Phelps said he will push local officials to file additional charges.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put up $5,000 toward the reward, and Kristin Simon, senior cruelty case worker for PETA, said law enforcement officials told her that a tipster had led officials to Vankirk.
“The reward will be in play,” she said.
Like Phelps, Simon said she had hoped he would be charged with other crimes.
“It was a selfish act,” she said.