It was a cold night in November, but inside Ramey's Store the air was warm with story-telling. Because the bow-hunting season already had begun, no one was particularly surprised when the short, thin man, who appeared to be in his late 20s, came in and said he wanted to buy a game tag for a slain deer.
But when Richard E. Freeze was asked how many points the buck's antlers showed, his answer nearly caused a few chaws of tobacco to be swallowed. Outside, said Freeze, was a deer with a 36-point rack. He might just as well have said a dinosaur was in the parking lot swallowing cars.
What happened next is still subject to debate. But since that night in 1981, Freeze and his deer have been at the center of a legal dispute that has involved two Virginia courts, the constitutionality of one of the state's most basic game laws and a tug of war over a mounted deer head that already has won Freeze $2,500 and may be worth as much as $100,000.
"This is a unique case," said Maj. Gerald Simmons, an official with Virginia's Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. "This is not your ordinary deer head."
The deer head that was sticking out of the trunk of Freeze's car that night did, indeed, support a 36-point rack, making it the third-largest white-tailed deer rack ever reported in Virginia and one of the top 25 validated in the United States.
Naturally, the men who followed Freeze outside wanted him to untie the trunk and remove a rug and spare tire so that they could see the body that went with the trophy-sized antlers.
Freeze refused. But when he went back into the store for a soda, four of the men reached into the trunk for a quick feel. What they found amazed them.
Last October, in Warren County General District Court, Donald Henry testified that the deer's neck made a hollow sound when tapped and that its eyes were "hard and dry like glass or something." That is hardly the condition one would expect of a freshly killed deer.
But that surprise paled in comparison to what another of the men, Kevin Boxley, testified that he discovered when he stuck his hand into Freeze's trunk. Where the neck should have been attached to a pair of shoulders, Boxley said, he found a board.
The head of the deer supposedly killed that day already had been mounted by a taxidermist.
Word of the unusual deer head quickly reached Robert Inskeep, the game warden for Page County, where Freeze lives. Inskeep, who later would say that he had been hearing of a phenomenal deer that had been killed out of season for almost three years, charged Freeze with violating the Virginia law that requires a hunter to "immediately present the tagged carcass of its kill to an authorized checking station."
Freeze's trial lasted just 1 hour 40 minutes. He was convicted, fined $75 and told that the deer head, which already had won him a contest in North Carolina, was no longer his property.
Freeze's attorney, John Bushey of Luray, appealed the conviction. In December, the parties and the deer head again were brought together in Warren County Circuit Court for a jury trial.
But before the case had proceeded very far, Bushey approached Judge Franklin P. Backus, a retired judge from Alexandria who was helping with the heavy case load in Warren County, to ask that the entire case be dismissed.
Bushey argued that the word "immediately" in the game law was too vague. He said the only way to comply with the law would be to kill deer directly beside a checking station.
Judge Backus listened to Bushey and David Crump, the commonwealth's attorney for Warren County, as they traded arguments and dictionary definitions. He then ruled that the law was, indeed, vague and therefore unconstitutional. Case dismissed. Freeze grabbed his deer head and went out the back door of the court.
"You could say I was surprised," said Crump, who has no recourse under Virginia law to appeal the judge's decision. "It is unusual for a circuit court judge to make constitutional rulings."
Crump said the ruling does not set any precedent beyond Warren County and that particular court. But it can be used to support a similar line of argument in any other case. And that worries, at least a little, officials with Virginia's game commission.
"We all agree it might be somewhat vague as the judge said . . . and we are looking at language used in other states," said Simmons. "But I don't know if there is a word that would be absolutely perfect. And we haven't issued any orders to quit making arrests."