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BOULDER, Colo. -- A former Boulder police officer was found guilty Tuesday of illegally shooting and trying to cover up the death of a beloved neighborhood elk nicknamed "Big Boy."

Sam Carter was found guilty on nine charges, including poaching, evidence tampering and forgery in connection with the Jan. 1, 2013 death of the elk in this iconic city's historic Mapleton neighborhood. Carter shot the elk with his buckshot-loaded shotgun as it grazed on fallen crabapples, and then called in a friend and fellow officer to help remove it as horrified neighbors watched.

During a six-day trial, prosecutors laid out their evidence that Carter targeted the majestic elk: text messages he sent to his buddy announcing "he dies tonight," his deliberate disabling of his patrol car's GPS unit, and hours of radio silence when fellow officers were responding to other calls.

"He had a good old time out there," prosecutor Fred Johnson said. "In the dark of the night...cloaked in his uniform ...he shot that elk down, killed it on the front lawn."

Carter's friend who helped remove the elk was an off-duty Boulder police officer, and has pleaded guilty to his role. Both officers also resigned from the department after they were arrested in January. They hauled the elk away, butchered it, and then told state wildlife officials that it had been hit by a car and needed to be put down, according to both sides.

The case has touched on the role of police, the value of wildlife, and even what legal duty officers have if an animal is deemed aggressive and poses a danger to drunken college students stumbling home from the bars.

Carter's defense team argued he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn't euthanized the elk, which he said had been hurt in an earlier car crash. Carter didn't take the stand during the trial. His attorneys argue he's being pilloried for making an unpopular decision.

"What he should have done, could have done...it doesn't matter," defense attorney Carrie Slinkard said in her closing argument to the jury of seven women and five men. "From the very beginning, they had their minds made up. This is a no-win situation for Mr. Carter."

The case touched a nerve in this small city where deer, bear and mountain lion sightings are common, and dogs may be publicly walked off-leash only in special areas and then only if their "dog guardians" have been specially certified by the city.

District Attorney Stan Garnett, who is helping prosecute the case, said it's not just about the death of an elk.

"This case is about what an animal like this means to the community," he said. "The public owns an animal like this."

After the case went to the jury on Tuesday morning, one of the neighborhood residents walked up to Garnett with a message: "Thank you for speaking for the elk," she said. She declined to give her name.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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