Prosecutors on Tuesday kicked off their federal case against a longtime Haines big game guide and three of his clients by calling their key witness to the stand: an assistant gaming guide who accompanied the group on the allegedly illegal mountain goat hunts in question.
Stuart James DeWitt, a 35-year-old commercial fisherman from Haines who supplements his income as an assistant guide, rattled off wildlife violation after violation that occurred during the October 2010 hunt wherein DeWitt was contracted to assistant guide for John Katzeek of Katzeek Guiding Services in Haines.
“I knew we didn’t do everything by the book,” DeWitt said during his five-plus hours on the stand in U.S. District Court.
The government’s case against Katzeek, 64, and the three clients, all of whom are from Alberta, Canada, largely hinges on DeWitt’s statements since he was present at the scene. They are also relying on federal agents and state law enforcement officials who investigated this case and other similar ones, an effort they have dubbed “Operation Bruin.”
Katzeek is facing up to 30 years in prison for six counts of violating the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law that prohibits the illegal taking and trafficking of wildlife. The three clients are each facing two counts of the same felony charge in connection to the 2010 hunt.
Katzeek and one of the clients, Kenneth Cox, are facing additional counts in connection to a subsequent mountain goat hunt in 2011. The other two defendants, Brian Hicken and his stepson, 19-year-old Tyler Antal, did not participate in that hunt. Katzeek’s other counts relate to an allegation of illegally smuggling Dall sheep into the U.S.
Violating the Lacey Act carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
The defense attorneys representing the four defendants have all decried at some point during the case the sentiment that “all this is over three goats,” a reference to the lengthy, joint investigation by U.S. and Canadian authorities that resulted in 60,000 pages of discovery, and what will likely be an expensive 10-day trial.
“It’s just amazing,” one of the defense attorneys, Tom Collins, told the Empire in disbelief.
Prosecutors for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska, meanwhile, insist the case is worthwhile, saying in opening statements last week that the case is about stewardship of Alaska’s resources, responsible hunting and abiding by state and federal wildlife laws. Lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki declined to discuss the matter further with the Empire on Tuesday since the trial is ongoing.
During his testimony, DeWitt accused the Canadian clients of shooting at three goats when they only had two tags to do so; the youngest client, Antal, shot and killed one of the goats and the group later falsified the paperwork to conceal it; and they left unsalvaged rib meat up on the mountain. All the while, Katzeek’s signature appeared on all the paperwork, and he bore the overall responsibility for the group since he was the contracted guide in charge, prosecutors said.
During cross-examination, however, the defense turned the tables on DeWitt and pointed out for the jury DeWitt’s own negligence and culpability in connection to the offenses during the hunt, as well as his past wildlife violations including illegal bear baiting. The defense also harped on the fact that DeWitt rolled over on Katzeek and the others by striking a deal with prosecutors that shields him from being charged with a federal crime. DeWitt will only face two misdemeanors in state court, and although he agreed to forfeit his guiding license for life, he will still be able to possess a firearm and hunt, according to the proffer letter in place.
“It’s a pretty fair deal,” DeWitt conceded during one of his cross-examinations. He was cross-examined four separate times on Tuesday, once by each of the defense attorneys. DeWitt’s own attorney, Julie Willoughby of Juneau, observed his testimony from the courtroom’s gallery.
The October 2010 Hunt
According to DeWitt’s testimony, the three clients, Katzeek and DeWitt all embarked on their mountain goat hunt on Oct. 26, 2010, after successfully and legally hunting brown bear earlier in the week.
The group hiked three to four hours up a mountain near mile post 16 above the Haines Highway carrying two rifles, both of which belonged to Katzeek. Katzeek grew tired and fell behind and was out of sight when the three clients and DeWitt spotted billy goats around 3,500 feet in elevation.
DeWitt said he was under the impression that Antal and Cox had the proper tags to shoot mountain goat and that Hicken did not. Authorities later informed him that was a misperception — Antal was the one who did not have the proper tags.
Regardless, up on the mountain, DeWitt set Antal and Cox up on two separate goats that were about 300 to 500 yards apart. Cox took the first shot at his and was convinced he hit it, but DeWitt said he was sure that Cox had missed.
Around the same time, Antal took a shot at his goat and wounded it. The goat tumbled down the mountain and over a ridge out of sight.
All of a sudden, a third goat appeared below the ridge line out of the alders, and Hicken asked DeWitt permission to shoot. DeWitt admitted to giving Hicken the “OK” even thought he was under the impression Hicken did not have a tag. Even if Hicken did have a tag, though, the act would still be unlawful because they were shooting at three goats when they only had two tags, DeWitt said.
Hicken’s shot hit the goat and wounded it, but DeWitt said they ran out of bullets so they could not kill it before it hobbled off. After DeWitt went to get more bullets from the others, he went looking for Hicken’s goat with Cox. They found it and saw it was wounded because it was “walking funny.” Cox then took two shots at it to kill it, but missed. DeWitt testified he finally took aim and killed it.
As DeWitt was tending to Hicken’s wounded goat, the other members of the group, plus Katzeek who had caught up with them, were tending to Antal’s goat, an older, bigger goat with chipped horns.
Two goats were killed, and the first goat that Cox thought he had hit was never found.
DeWitt testified under direct examination from Skrocki that at some point, he informed Katzeek that he gave Hicken the go ahead to shoot the third goat. DeWitt said Katzeek looked either disappointed in him or mad.
“The look on his face, I could tell,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said they left the ribs and rib meat on the goats because it was too time consuming for so little meat. He also testified that the next day Antal obtained a proper tag and a mountain goat registration permit from the state to shoot mountain goats. Prosecutors showed the paperwork to the jury, which shows Antal wrote down that it was a two-day hunt starting a day later on Oct. 27, which wasn’t the case. Likewise, DeWitt said, Cox claimed the goat Antal shot and killed. Prosecutors again showed the paperwork to the jury, and pointed to Katzeek’s signature at the bottom of the page.
Under cross-examination from Katzeek’s attorney Collins, DeWitt emphasized that Katzeek was not present when shots were fired since the guide had fallen behind during the climb up the mountain. DeWitt also said that Katzeek never told him to do something illegal, or ever observed him doing something illegal.
Antal’s attorney Cara McNamara harped on the responsibilities DeWitt had and failed to enlist as an assistant guide knowledgeable about Alaska’s wildlife laws and terrain. She noted DeWitt obviously did not pay close attention to the paperwork, which would have showed Antal did not have a tag or permit, which was a part of his job.
On redirect, prosecutors emphasized that Katzeek was the main guide, and it was Katzeek’s responsibility — not DeWitt’s — to submit all the proper paperwork to the state.
As for Cox, his attorney Fred Triem showed the jury that the dates and paperwork on Cox’s hunt record were crossed off and changed, and his signature was forged by an unknown person. Triem asked DeWitt if he is the person who forged the paperwork; DeWitt said he couldn’t tell by the handwriting, but it might have been him.
DeWitt testified he received about $3,000 for his guiding assistance during the trip from Katzeek.
The October 2011 Hunt
DeWitt testified he was contracted the next year to assistant guide for another mountain goat hunt, and he invited Cox, who was in town, to come along because he “felt bad” Cox never got to kill a goat during the 2010 trip. Accompanying them was another client from Alberta and a packer.
The group set off Oct. 11, 2011, for an overnight trip atop a mountain above the Wells Bridge north of Haines off the Chilkat River. They went up the mountain, and spotted and legally killed two mountain goats. Each client got one goat.
The legal trouble occurred on the way down, DeWitt testified. DeWitt said it snowed overnight and on their way down the mountain in the morning, he slipped and fell about 300 feet down the mountain. He smashed his nose, broke his fibula and fractured his ankle.
He said he could stand up and put a little weight on his leg, but he could not walk. The group helped him down the treacherous terrain to safety, which took about eight hours.
Somewhere along the way, DeWitt decided to leave the goat meat in his pack behind.
“We needed to drop weight to get down safely,” he said. “That’s the main point. It was dangerous.”
The problem is that Alaska law prohibits leaving unsalvaged meat behind, and the law also requires hunters to salvage meat before trophies. In this case, prosecutors say the group conspired to bring down the trophies and leave the meat behind. Cox and the other client brought down the hide, antlers and cape in their packs and left the meat, DeWitt said.
On cross-examination, though, DeWitt admitted he never told the hunters about the meat-before-trophies rule, and that he never offered that up as a choice.
Prosecutors said they expect to rest their case on Thursday, at which point the defense will put on their case. The presiding judge, Timothy Burgess, said he expects the trial will last a total of 10 days.