After three Canadians took a guided hunting trip in Haines in 2010, Goat A ended up with Goat B’s tag and vice versa. Another hunt with the same guide the next year resulted in meat being left up on the mountain.
Was the tag discrepancy a mix-up, or a conspiracy to cover up who the real shooter was? Was abandoning the meat a criminal act, or an acceptable loss in the face of a mountaintop rescue?
These are questions the jury will have to decide as a longtime Haines big game guide and his three clients from Alberta stand trial in Juneau federal court.
The trial began Wednesday with opening statements from attorneys, who told vastly different stories about what both sides agreed were “two hunts gone wrong.”
In his opening, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki told the jurors that the defendants falsely labeled their two mountain goat kills in 2010 to conceal the fact that one of the shooters, whom they say is 19-year-old defendant Tyler Antal, did not have the appropriate permit and tag to hunt goat. The other two defendants, Antal’s stepfather Brian Hicken and friend Kenneth Cox, did.
“One (goat) was tagged by Hicken and another by Cox, but Antal was the shooter,” Skrocki alleged, adding if the defendants testify on their own behalf at trial, “They’re going to cover it up, or ‘forget’ the story.”
Guide John Katzeek, the prosecutor alleged, knew the paperwork was being falsified but ignored it. All four defendants are charged with conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which prohibits the trafficking of wildlife.
The defense attorneys told a different story. (Each defendant has their own attorney, as the judge required in pretrial rulings. Katzeek is represented by Tom Collins; Hicken by Michael Nash; Antal by Cara McNamara; Cox by Fred Triem. All four defense attorneys gave opening statements, an endeavor that took about two hours Wednesday morning.)
For 19-year-old Antal, the trip was a “trip of a lifetime” and a chance to spend more time with his stepfather, but it turned into a “nightmare,” his stepfather’s attorney, Nash, said.
Antal didn’t take a shot at the goat; rather, Hicken did and wounded it, and then an assistant guide killed it, Nash said. The tags for the two goats got mixed up later on, probably because the two sets of horns and capes were detached, Nash said. The capes and horns were later transported to Alberta.
“We contend that this was just a mix-up,” Nash said.
McNamara called into question the government’s cooperating witness who said Antal fired the rifle. The witness, Stuart DeWitt, who is expected to testify next week, was an assistant game guide on the hunt. He was charged with criminal wildlife offenses, and struck a deal with prosecutors that requires him to testify against the others.
Katzeek was not even there at the scene at the time of the kill, his attorney, Collins, said. The guide, whom Collins described as a 64-year-old grandfather, tribal leader and respected elder, had significantly fallen behind the group as they climbed a steep mountain, and could only hear the shots fired.
“All four of the gentlemen here do not think they are criminals, as the government alleges,” Collins said.
Collins added his client has been guiding since 1969 and “takes great pride” in his profession. Katzeek learned how to hunt from his father.
As for the 2011 hunt, where the goats were killed legally but the meat was left on the mountain, the defense attorneys attributed that to extenuating circumstances. During the hunt, assistant guide DeWitt had slipped, broke his ankle and the others in the group helped him down the mountain. (Only Katzeek and Cox are charged in connection to the 2011 hunt. The stepfather and son Hicken and Antal did not participate.)
Collins said Katzeek and Cox left the meat behind to “help save DeWitt’s life.” It was a dangerous scenario, Collins added, noting the group had to spend the night on the mountain.
Defense attorney Fred Triem said he thought it was ironic that DeWitt will now be testifying against the people who helped save him.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” he quipped.
Prosecutors, however, questioned how the group managed to carry the trophy hides and the horns down the mountain, but leave the unsalvaged meat. The defense countered that by saying the meat weighed more. Someone went back the next day to try to retrieve it but was unable to, the defense said.
Skrocki, the prosecutor with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Anchorage, conceded in his opening that the circumstances surrounding the 2011 hunt were “difficult,” but he added, “choices were made.”
“This is a case about doing the right thing when you have those things put upon you,” he said, stressing that hunting in Alaska is a privilege and mandates stewardship and responsibility. “This is a state where hunting is prized, and there are rules and regulations.”
Katzeek is additionally charged with violating the Lacey Act for allegedly illegally smuggling Dall sheep back to the U.S. from the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Yukon Territory of Canada, where he is allowed to hunt for subsistence as a member of the Kluane First Nations tribe.
The trial will continue next week due to the judge’s travel schedule. The second day of trial will take place Monday, Jan. 27.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or email@example.com.