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Wildlife trial turns focus to sheep horn smuggling

Posted: January 31, 2014 - 11:22am  |  Updated: February 2, 2014 - 1:07am

The federal trial against the longtime Haines big game guide and three of his clients shifted away from illegal mountain goat hunts and toward allegations of illegally smuggling Dall sheep horns from Canada into the U.S.

On Thursday, prosecutors focused their attention solely on John Katzeek.

Katzeek, a 64-year-old from Haines who has been guiding since 1969, is facing three felonies in connection to those allegations, plus three more in connection to the 2010 and 2011 goat hunts. Altogether, he is facing up to 30 years in prison for violating the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law that prohibits the illegal taking and trafficking of wildlife.

Jurors on Thursday saw the pictures of the “exceptionally large” — 43.5 inches long — Dall sheep horns from a mature 13-year-old ram that prosecutors say Katzeek hunted legally in the winter of 2006 in the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Yukon. Katzeek is as a member of the Kluane First Nations tribe and is allowed to hunt for subsistence there.

The legal trouble, however, arose in trying to bring the horns back to the states for a trophy on his wall. Prosecutors say the friend Katzeek went on the hunting trip with falsified paperwork to deliver the horns to Katzeek in Haines, and that Katzeek received them knowing it was illegal.

But the jury didn’t have to trust prosecutors on that claim — they brought in the hunting partner to testify against Katzeek. Luke Johnson, a resident of Burwash Landing in the Yukon, testified that he falsified paperwork to obtain a Canadian export permit which allowed the horns to be imported into Alaska.

Like others who have testified against Katzeek, including an assistant guide and a packer during the goat hunts in question, Johnson had entered into a cooperation agreement with the government. A proffer letter in place shields Johnson from being prosecuted under U.S. law for falsifying the documents, although he testified he is charged with a crime on the Canadian side of the border. That case is still pending, he said.

Normally, horns don’t mean much to members of their tribe, Johnson said, because providing meat for the community is what matters.

“You can’t eat horns,” Johnson said of the mantra he was taught growing up.

But the horns in this case became a sort of “momento,” Johnson said, because of what difficulties he and Katzeek encountered during the winter hunt. The ram, once shot and wounded, had fallen down a steep snowy hole atop the mountain, and since they were losing daylight and were two hours away from home, the two were forced to leave it for the night.

“I wouldn’t do that unless it was absolutely necessary,” Johnson emphasized.

They went back the next morning and lowered Katzeek into the hole with ropes; he managed to cut the hind quarters off the ram and pulled it (mostly intact) up onto ground. Once they accomplished lifting it out, they snapped some pictures and then pulled it back home in a sleigh they hitched to a Ski-Doo.

Hunters in the tribe usually share the meat after a kill, but the ram was frozen and had to dethaw before being butchered later on. The two agreed later during phone calls that the horns would make a nice trophy for Katzeek’s home, Johnson said.

In March 2009, Johnson filled out the paperwork and listed the wrong kill date, location and the hunter who killed the sheep. (Johnson claimed he had killed it when really Katzeek had, he said.) After showing that inaccurate form to customs, Johnson was able to hand deliver the horns to Katzeek at his home in Haines. Johnson testified that when he gave them to Katzeek, he informed him of what he had done. It’s a violation of the Lacey Act to receive such items knowing they were imported, brought and received into the United States contrary to the law.

Later, the horns were stolen from the back of Katzeek’s truck. Johnson said he believes the whereabouts of the horns are still unknown, which upset him not only because it can be traced to him by the plug number, but also because the horns were meaningful to him.

“We were able to share a pretty good hard hunt together, and those set of horns meant a lot to me,” Johnson said, adding that the elder Katzeek, about twice his senior, was like a mentor to him.

Katzeek’s attorney Tom Collins said the only reason that Katzeek did not take the horns back with him to Haines in the first place was because the hunt was over the weekend, and the Canadian government’s Fish and Game office was closed. Collins also pointed out that both hunters took shots at the sheep, in reference to which hunter killed it.

Johnson also testified against Katzeek regarding another hunt in the summer of 2010. Katzeek had legally killed a Dall sheep during the hunt, but prosecutors say he falsely labelled the kill report by writing down the wrong location the sheep was killed. U.S. Customs allowed Katzeek to import the horns back to Alaska based on that false document, prosecutors said.

Collins, however, showed that Katzeek had only hunted at the sanctuary a few times before, and never by himself. Katzeek always went with Johnson, who is much more familiar with the terrain. The defense attorney emphasized the sanctuary is 10,000 square miles, and the location listed in Katzeek’s report was only 20 miles off from the actual kill site.

Testimony on Thursday also showed that the federal agents assigned to so-called “Operation Bruin,” the joint U.S.-Canadian investigation that led to the charges against Katzeek and his older brother, fell short when investigating Katzeek for potential brown bear guiding offenses.

Curtis Graves, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, testified for the government that he came up to Alaska in May 2011 and went undercover. He paid Katzeek $12,500 for a 10-day brown bear hunt in Haines (although, as the defense mentioned during cross-examination, the first check bounced. Prosecutors clarified on re-direct that the second check cleared.) Graves was looking for possible offenses such as guiding clients for brown bear over bait, or guiding clients over an unregistered bear site, two offenses they got Katzeek’s brother Ronald L. Martin for. But Katzeek did everything by the books, Graves said, and Graves went back to Colorado.

During the hunting trip, Katzeek at one time mentioned that sheep horns had been stolen from him, but he did not say anything else about them, according to Graves in explaining how his testimony was relevant to this case.

Martin, on the other hand, also a guide in Haines, was charged with violating the Lacey Act for his actions and he later pleaded guilty to five felony counts. He avoided jail time at sentencing, but was fined $40,000 and placed on probation for four years, during which time his hunting license is revoked.

The brothers appear to have been the only two people charged on the U.S. side of the border in connection to Operation Bruin; the investigation led to 17 other people in Canada being charged in unrelated but similar cases, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska.

On Thursday, Katzeek’s attorney Collins told the Empire he believes the government targeted Katzeek because of his brother’s illegal activities. When they didn’t come up with anything big, such as brown bear hunting, Collins said they decided to pursue this case about mountain goats and Dall sheep. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki, meanwhile, has said in court that this case is important since it still involves stewardship of Alaska’s resources, responsible hunting and abiding by state and federal wildlife laws.

Skrocki, the lead prosecutor, expected to rest his case on Thursday, but his last witness got “fogged in” from Haines. The defense attorneys for Katzeek and the three clients implicated in the mountain goat hunts expect to finish putting on their cases early next week, and the case could go to the jury as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

Three of Katzeek’s clients, all from Alberta, Canada, are also charged with violating the Lacey Act for multiple alleged violations dealing with the mountain goat hunts, and they are standing trial alongside Katzeek. They are Brian Hicken, his 19-year-old stepson Tyler Antal and family friend Kenneth Cox.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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