Heiber allegedly told Knoch the only way the originals would be returned was for a payment of $5,000. If he complained to anyone, the antlers would be destroyed, Knoch said Heiber told him.
At that point, the rancher turned into a detective. Knoch drove to Whitehall, Mont., to find Heiber's taxidermist, Dan McKenna.
Hiding his true intentions, Knoch lugged along another set of shed antlers to show the taxidermist. Had he done any similar work? Sure, McKenna answered. He pulled out a photograph. There was no mistake: It was Knoch's missing antlers, beautifully mounted. They had been shipped, McKenna added, to a client in Red Bluff a couple years earlier.
Back home, Knoch stewed for months, then complained to the state Fish and Game Department, which launched an investigation in 1998. Three months later, wardens searched Heiber's house, finding the missing mule deer antlers on a wall. The trophy hunter was arrested on charges of theft and extortion.
Heiber told investigators that Knoch had sold him the originals, though he couldn't remember for how much. Knoch, he said, was supposed to get the duplicate set.
At the preliminary hearing in January, Heiber's attorney argued that criminal charges were ludicrous, that the dispute should be slugged out in civil court. Heiber had felt betrayed after Knoch quit and believed the ranching scion should pay for the taxidermy, attorney Joe Gazzigli said. He noted that there never was a written agreement.
Brian Ledford, a Shasta deputy district attorney, countered that Heiber demonstrated a deceptive pattern, putting Knoch off at each step to keep the antlers. The two men had a deal, Ledford said, and Heiber broke it.
"These people are ranchers and farmers," he said. "Their word is their bond."
In October, Heiber pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of theft. A judge ordered him to perform 400 hours of community service, pay $7,500 in fines and reimburse the costs of the investigation, $27,000 in all. He also was stripped of his rights to hunt in the United States and Canada for the next five years.
The notorious rack now is fixed to a wall in Knoch's living room. And he figures Heiber got what he deserved.
"I just wanted my property back," Knoch said. "I had to do what I had to do."