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Three charged for illegally trafficking Walrus parts, tusks and polar bear hides

Posted: April 29, 2011 - 5:47am
Two walrus are shown on Round Island, one of the seven islands in the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in the waters of northern Bristol Bay. Only native Americans are currently allowed to hunt walrus and most use the entire animal as a subsistance need. Walruses use their tusks to pull onto the ice, dig up the ocean bottom in search of shellfish, and for protection. Tusks can weight over three pounds each. Walrus whiskers are actually sensitive tactile organs to aid in finding food. Walruses can submerge for over 30 minutes and an adult male can weigh over 3,000 pounds and be 12-feet long. Walruses feed on clams, mussels, krill, crabs, worms and snails but will also eat octopus and fish and may attack seals. Walruses can live up to 30 years in the wild. Hearing, smell and touch are their most important senses as they do not have good eyesight. Their only natural enemies are killerwhales and polar bears, but adult males have been known to kill a polar bear.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Two walrus are shown on Round Island, one of the seven islands in the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in the waters of northern Bristol Bay. Only native Americans are currently allowed to hunt walrus and most use the entire animal as a subsistance need. Walruses use their tusks to pull onto the ice, dig up the ocean bottom in search of shellfish, and for protection. Tusks can weight over three pounds each. Walrus whiskers are actually sensitive tactile organs to aid in finding food. Walruses can submerge for over 30 minutes and an adult male can weigh over 3,000 pounds and be 12-feet long. Walruses feed on clams, mussels, krill, crabs, worms and snails but will also eat octopus and fish and may attack seals. Walruses can live up to 30 years in the wild. Hearing, smell and touch are their most important senses as they do not have good eyesight. Their only natural enemies are killerwhales and polar bears, but adult males have been known to kill a polar bear.

Three Alaskans were arraigned in U.S. district court in Anchorage Thursday after being indicted by a federal grand jury for illegal wildlife trafficking and firearms violations.

Glenallen residents Jesse Leboeuf, also known as Wayne Christian, 47, Loretta Sternbach, 52, and Anchorage resident Richard “Rick” Weshenfelder, 50, were indicted Wednesday for one count of felony conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, six counts of Lacey Act violations, one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, one count of illegal possession of a machine gun, and one count of possession of an unregistered machine gun.

The indictment charges they conspired to illegally sell and transport walrus tusks and polar bear hides, violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and Lacey Act, from July 2010 to April.

Walrus parts and tusks and bear hides were purchased from individuals in Savoonga and transported to the defendant’s home in Glenallen. The individuals were paid in either money or trade items such as firearms, ammunition, marijuana and cigarettes..

Leboeuf and Sternbach made two trips to Savoonga in July and August 2010 and purchased more than 500 pounds of walrus tusks. Leboeuf made two trips in September 2010 and March. Weshenfelder marketed the tusks via the Internet and Leboeuf negotiated the sales.

In attempts to conceal the illegality of the sales to non-Alaska-native buyers, “gift” letters to the buyers were included to make it seem the tusks were obtained legally. The letter stated the tusk was a gift from Sternbach and included her Bureau of Indian Affairs number, the walrus tusk tag number, and the home phone of Leboeuf and Sternbach. Payment was directed to various bank accounts. The trio illegally sold and transported to a non-Alaskan Native buyer approximately 230 pounds of tusks valued at $22,000 and two polar bear hides for $2,700.

Leboeuf was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm and, along with Sternbach, illegal possession of a machine gun. The two sold machine guns to undercover agents in December 2010 and February.

During a search warrant executed Tuesday at their Glenallen home, Leboeuf exited and fired a shot. Numerous firearms were in the house, including a machine gun, plus more than 30 marijuana plants, coca plants, stolen art and hundreds of pounds of walrus ivory.

According to United States Attorneys Yvonne Lamoureux and Steve Skrocki, the law provides for a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years supervised probation on each Lacey violation. The firearm violations provide for a maximum 10 years, fines of $250,000, and three years probation on each count.

All three defendants are in custody and were arraigned in Anchorage Federal Court Thursday.

The arrest came about after a combined operation of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, The United States Postal Inspection Service, Alaska State Troopers, The National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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