A Haida hunter, artist and businessman from Ketchikan was fined $10,000 and ordered to six months of home confinement after admitting to illegally hunting and selling sea otter pelts.
Sherman Roger Alexander, 58, was also ordered to forfeit 144 sea otter pelts and to serve one year of probation after his release from home confinement.
At first, Alexander was hesitant to change his plea to guilty, telling U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Longenbaugh during Thursday’s hearing in federal court in Juneau that he was only entering into a plea agreement to ensure that his partner, Ellen Bishop, would not be prosecuted.
He and Bishop founded and operated Soft Gold Furs in Ketchikan, which made hats, mittens, scarves, purses and other clothing and accessories out of seal and sea otter fur. The business has since shut down due to the criminal charges, they said.
When the judge inquired further about the voluntariness of Alexander’s plea, he told her, “No, I’m not guilty. I am guilty of my paperwork was not up to snuff — .”
Alexander’s attorney Brent Cole advised him to stop talking before he could finish, and court recessed for the two to talk. When court reconvened, Alexander pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts relating to violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Alexander admitted to failing to tag 87 sea otters that he hunted with an unidentified person, later found out to be an undercover agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, between April and May of 2008.
For the take of a marine mammal to be legal, the mammal must be tagged and reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The parties stipulated that the approximate value of those illegally taken pelts was $30,000.
Alexander also admitted to transporting and giving 14 sea otter skulls, which were taken from the 87 killed sea otters, to the undercover agent.
He also admitted to selling raw hide parts from several sea otters that were taken illegally since they weren’t registered within 30 days and then sold to a person who was not an Alaska Native.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki, who prosecuted the case, said this case was a result of a lengthy undercover investigation and that the offenses took place over “many, many months.” He told the judge that tagging mammals is important to Fish and Wildlife who need that information to determine how to manage the species population.
Skrocki noted the original plea agreement called for Alexander to serve six months in jail, but he agreed to home confinement when provided medical records that showed Alexander was ill.
Bishop told the judge a different side of the story when she spoke of Alexander’s behalf, saying they were the victims of entrapment.
She said before 13 Fish and Wildlife agents showed up at her door in 2008, they had received multiple requests to engage in illegal activity: a Canadian who wanted them to send sea otter parts to Canada; a man claiming to be Korean and asking for whole sea otter parts; a woman from Tennessee wanting sea otter products.
“The entrapment was so over the top, it’s hard to take in,” she said.
At the time, she dismissed the requests as “odd,” but realized later it was all a part of the Fish and Wildlife investigation into their business.
“Little did we suspect it was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials trying to entrap us,” Bishop, a former elementary school teacher, said.
When agents showed up at her house with a search warrant on Oct. 1, 2008, they didn’t inform her what they were searching for, she said. She had to leave for work at the school, asked the principal to get a substitute teacher for her, then went back to the house.
They wouldn’t let her back in, she said, adding that they were there for eight and a half hours, and she watched as they carted boxes from her house, downloaded materials from her computer and took all the furs from the last hunting trip.
Alexander was in the house, and she wanted to tell him that she got him an attorney who advised him not to say anything, but the agents who promised to relay that message to him never did, she said.
“I felt scared, overwhelmed and discouraged,” Bishop told the judge.
She said that Alexander was the one with the idea and the dream for the business, while she provided financial help and business skills.
Before the business got its start in 2003, they consulted U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Anchorage about the rules and regulations regarding hunting and selling, she said. She added they even posted the rules and regulations on their website, www.softgoldfurs.com, which they have since taken offline.
The business was awarded a $35,000 grant in the annual Alaska Marketplace competition in 2007 to expand into rural Alaska, including Alexander’s birthplace of Hydaburg, she said. It was also recognized once in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife newsletter, she said.
Bishop said she was humiliated as neighbors watched the “home invasion” and as Alexander became “suspect” in their eyes. She added that she was “dumbstruck” by the amount of effort that went into the investigation, a sentiment that was echoed by Alexander’s attorney.
“It was amazing to me when I looked at the evidence how much effort the government did to try to get him to violate the law,” Cole said, to the prosecutor’s objection.
Bishop admitted that Alexander “dropped the ball” several times, including not tagging or reporting the sea otter kills, and for eventually acquiescing by selling the sea otter goods to the undercover agent, who was posing as a good customer who frequented their shop.
Skrocki pushed back on the notion that this was entrapment, saying that if it was the defense attorney would have filed a motion alleging government misconduct. No such motion or allegation was made by Cole. Skrocki requested an evidentiary hearing if such allegations continued at the sentencing hearing.
Alexander had the support of several leaders of the Southeast Native community attend the hearing, including Robert Loescher, Peter Naoroz and Native Elder John Martin Sr.
Alexander, a former mechanic, said he began the business because a sea otter appeared to him once in a dream. He said he never imagined it would end like this.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” he said.
After hearing from prosecutors and the defense, the judge accepted the plea deal and imposed the sentence in accordance with the agreement.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.