The smuggling operation across the Texas border proved lucrative, netting more than $2 million for hauling the undocumented 41 who went by such aliases as "Hit Man" and "Spike."
But the illegal cargo wasn't immigrants from Mexico.
It was white-tailed deer secretly brought into Texas from northern states to breed with native deer in an effort to produce trophy bucks with chandelier-sized antlers.
The imports are illegal as the state tries to protect Texas deer against diseases that could decimate native herds.
When the smuggler -- a prominent East Texas deer breeder named Billy Powell -- was sentenced three weeks ago to six months home confinement and fined $1.5 million, it sent shock waves through a growing Texas industry.
Some people might find deer-breeding a strange niche, since the state's deer are so plentiful they can be nuisances, munching on gardens and straying onto roadways.
But Texas game warden Capt. Greg Williford said breeders cater to high-dollar hunters who want that "trophy showpiece for their mantle."
Deer breeding can also be profitable in a state where hunting is practically a birthright, with a $2 billion annual economic impact.
It's legal, as long as it involves registered, captive deer from within the state. Capturing wild deer, or importing new stock from out of state, is not. Importing semen is allowed.
"There's a strong market for deer with those monster antlers. Hunters will pay thousands of dollars to bag one," said Michael Merida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent in Fort Worth. "That's why a frozen semen straw from a big-name buck can be worth $2,000, and a breeder can extract 70 or 80 straws at a time."
The actual animals can sell for "insane amounts," much like purebred race horses, he said, noting that one buck recently sold for $450,000.
A Texas A&M University study found deer breeding pumped $650 million into the U.S. economy four years ago and was the fastest-growing industry in rural America. In Texas, permits have been issued to 1,233 breeders, who have 103,000 deer registered.
Amber Andel, Texas Parks and Wildlife breeder specialist, said the field has grown by about 20 percent a year but could be slowed by the drought.
The laws are aimed at stopping the spread of "chronic wasting disease," which has infected deer in at least 12 states and is similar to mad cow disease. It can't be transmitted to humans. No state has eradicated the disease once it's established.
Violations can also be prosecuted under the federal Lacey Act, which carries harsher penalties.
"Antler fever is what we call it," said Roy Douglas Malonson, owner of the RS Deer Ranch, covering 221 acres of rolling green country in Waller County. "Some get caught up in it. They want the best of the best and get obsessed."
Mounted deer with massive antlers - including one he bred, "Cajun Bakerman" -- hang from walls at Malonson's hunting lodge, which opened this month.
He said he bought "some genetics," or semen, from Powell.
"Powell is one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet," said Malonson, who said he was stunned by Powell's recent conviction. "I can't imagine him doing something like that."
But investigators say Powell smuggled deer into his breeding operation near Jacksonville in Cherokee County.
He pleaded guilty to obtaining 41 deer from Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio over a three-year period and was ordered to pay $1.5 million in fines and restitution and spend six months in home confinement, enforced by an electronic ankle monitor.
A year earlier, a Houstonian who owns several oil-related fabrication facilities, Robert Eichenour, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being accused of bringing 14 deer from Minnesota to his 3,200-acre exotic Circle E gaming ranch in Grimes County. He was also fined $50,000.
Eichenour paid about $1,500 each for the smuggled deer, then charged hunters $12,000 or more for bagging a large, white- tailed buck, authorities said.
His attorney, Trent Gaither, of Houston, said authorities are "going overboard" with the penalties, noting the offense would be a misdemeanor under state law.
State authorities, meanwhile, say they have 20 active investigations into breeding operations, including three spawned by the Powell case.
"We're not letting up," Merida said. "We hope the convictions will start being a deterrent to others."