Ricky Johnson doesn’t own a suit, so his Sunday best for court meant facing the judge in his only pair of dress slacks with a trimmed beard and fresh haircut.
He remembers the outfit from the October 2016 trial — a green button-down shirt and gray pants — because he wore the same clothes for his son’s funeral. In more than 25 years of running Rick Johnson’s Deer and Beaver Inc., the 2010 funeral marked the only day Johnson hasn’t offered his services.
Many know Johnson as the “deerman,” a nickname also spelled out on the license plate of his red Chevy truck. In the predawn darkness, on holidays, amid the often-vexing Minnesota weather, he peels battered deer off the roads after collisions in an area spanning three counties and several dozen cities.
But in 2003, Anoka County began outsourcing some of Johnson’s work to inmates from the county workhouse, despite language in Johnson’s contract assigning him the disposal of “all deer carcasses located on or near Anoka County highways.”
In 2015, Johnson finally sued.
A judge previously ruled that the county had repeatedly breached Johnson’s contracts and found last month that it owes him $420,418, plus costs and disbursements. The total represents profits lost from May 2009 to December 2015, with recovery for work lost in previous years beyond the statute of limitations.
The county plans to appeal.
“We certainly respect the court’s judgment in this matter, but we feel it is appropriate to have an appellate court review the intensely litigated issues that were presented in this case,” County Attorney Tony Palumbo said.
For Johnson, 59, the victory has been bittersweet.
“It was hard for me to sue the county because I didn’t want to,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to do my job.”
‘Rick, we’ve got a deer’
Over the course of his career, Johnson figures he has dragged away some 30,000 deer — from small fawns to hefty bucks weighing 300 pounds.
The lawsuit ended his work for Anoka County, but the soft-spoken carcass courier said he still works for Hennepin and Ramsey counties, as well as dozens of cities.
While deer removal is now his main focus, Johnson got his start in 1979 as a nuisance beaver trapper for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
It’s a risky job — unplugging culverts, trapping beaver and tearing out dams cobbled together in the most inconvenient places, often prone to flooding. He’s had some close calls, including the time he almost floated into the Mississippi River on an ice sheet.
Tim Kelly, district administrator of the Coon Creek Watershed District, remembers that day, as well as the moment he grabbed hold of Johnson when the trapper jumped from the drifting ice back to shore. Kelly has worked with Johnson removing nuisance beavers for 27 years.
“Rick is old school,” Kelly said. “He has never treated the district unfairly and has expected to be treated the same way.”
Dead deer removal has its own risks, especially along busy roads. Twice Johnson has contracted Lyme disease, probably from deer ticks.
The calls — “Rick, we’ve got a deer” — come in at all hours. On Thanksgiving. On Christmas. On the day his son died. He even picked up deer after court.
From the time he gets a call, Johnson has four hours to retrieve his hoofed bounty. If the alert is from Hennepin County, it often comes from Katie Gunderson, who works in dispatch for county transportation. She has placed hundreds of calls to Johnson over the years, without ever meeting him.
“He always answers and is always happy,” Gunderson said. “Always asks how I’m doing.”
Anoka County first approached Johnson about keeping its roads free of deer carcasses in 1990. Until 2015, that’s what he did. He received a base pay for the first 10 deer carcasses each month and then a fee for each additional carcass.
As deer populations surged, the county brought in workhouse crews to help cut costs.
Johnson wasn’t too happy when inmates started doing his job. Despite his ongoing objections, calls from Anoka County lessened, especially during peak deer season. First, work crews tried burying the carcasses under wood chips. Then, inmates began hauling them to the Wildlife Science Center in Anoka County, the same drop-off site Johnson uses.
He considered suing as early as 2009, but personal tragedy took priority, he said, starting with the unexpected loss of his 24-year-old son. Two nephews died soon after. Then his wife of 41 years, Pam, was diagnosed with cancer.
“I fell apart,” Johnson said. “I would have addressed it sooner, but there were way more important things in my life at that point.”
Court documents uncover the main points of contention in the case, including whether Johnson waived his right to enforce the contract agreement because he waited so long to sue.
Contract language is another issue, hinging especially on the word “all.” As in, removal of “all deer carcasses.” From 1999 to 2015, this language remain unchanged through each contract renewal even after the county started using workhouse labor, according to court documents.
In a May 2016 order that found Anoka County liable for damages, District Judge Sharon Hall writes, “The county, with a straight face, argues that the word ‘all’ it wrote into its contracts … does not mean ‘all.’ ”
The court calculated damages of $420,418 based on carcass estimates provided by the Wildlife Science Center, as both the inmates and Johnson dropped off deer to feed the center’s animals. Anoka County suggested at most, he might have lost $71,500.
Johnson said he prides himself on getting to deer before the sun or other animals do, especially if the carcass is in someone’s front yard. He’s also been called out to fatal collisions and asked to drag deer off windshields before families arrive at the scene.
The few days he’s ill or out of town, his daughter or wife, whose health has improved, responds to calls.
Johnson often roves back roads with his black labradoodle, Etta, riding shotgun. On a recent morning, he set out from his home in Nowthen to drop off two carcasses at the Wildlife Science Center. He’s in his element as he dons his work gloves and hoists the carcasses from his truck to feed hungry wolves.
Johnson recalls his days in court with bewilderment, comparing himself to a fish “out of water.” But it’s something he said he wants to see through the appeals process.
“This is my family’s future,” Johnson said. “It’s a big thing to us.”
Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751