Prosecutors trying a big game guide from Haines and three of his clients say “greed for money and need for a trophy” was the motivation for illegal acts during two mountain goat hunts in Haines that went awry in 2010 and 2011.
“They’re paying big money for the opportunity to hunt in Alaska and to do it right, and this one was not done right,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki told the jury during closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Juneau on Tuesday.
But with just four dead goats at issue, two of which it is undisputed were hunted legally, the defense decried government overreach and overzealousness for spending “countless hours and immense resources of personnel” in targeting the four defendants in a joint U.S.-Canadian federal investigation, dubbed “Operation Bruin”, that failed to yield any serious allegations against them, such as brown bear baiting.
“These three hunters are our neighbors,” defense attorney Fred Triem said of the three Canadian defendants. “They came here as our guests, and this is really a shabby way to treat them.”
John Katzeek, a longtime guide from Haines, and the three Canadians, Brian Hicken, his son Tyler Antal and family friend Kenneth Cox, are standing trial for violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal taking and trafficking of wildlife and can fetch up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Testimony concluded on Monday after the jury heard two weeks of evidence, and closing arguments from attorneys on Tuesday. The jurors, six men and six women from various Southeast communities, broke to deliberate at about 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon and continued deliberating all day Wednesday without reaching a verdict.
Prosecutors say the youngest of the three defendants and least experienced hunter, 19-year-old Antal, successfully and legally hunted a brown bear with his father and friend during a guided hunt with Katzeek in October 2010, but the next day he shot and killed a mountain goat without the proper registration and tag. Prosecutors say Antal’s father, Hicken, covered it up by using his tag for the goat, and that when Hicken shot his goat, he used Cox’s tag even though Cox never killed a goat. They also falsified documents to further cover it up, prosecutors said.
Skrocki said Cox was telling the truth when he initially told investigating federal wildlife offers who showed up at his house in southern Alberta without warning that he did not shoot a goat in 2010. “He said, ‘I didn’t kill a goat in 2010, but somebody else did,’” Skrocki said. “That somebody else was Tyler Antal.”
Cox’s attorney Fred Triem said Cox’s wife reminded him that night that he had killed a goat in Alaska in 2010 and that Cox called the investigators the next day to correct himself. Cox is an experienced hunter who has traveled the world hunting and was featured as a long-range shooting master marksman on an outdoor television series called Extreme Outer Limits.
Cox and Antal declined to testify in their own defense, but Hicken took the witness stand last week to vigorously dispute prosecutors’ version of events, which came into evidence through an assistant guide on the hunt who later cut a deal with the government to avoid being prosecuted with a federal crime. Hicken said he shot and tagged his own goat, as did Cox. Antal only took a shot at Cox’s goat that was already wounded and running away — it would have suffered needlessly if it hadn’t been put down.
“The idea that somewhere along the line, he tagged another goat is preposterous,” Hicken’s attorney Michael Nash told jurors on Tuesday, pointing out that the only piece of paperwork that wasn’t in order was a data measurement form that was filled out by a Fish and Game employee and then “shoved in front of” Hicken for his signature. “There’s no cover-up here. There’s no conspiracy. There’s nothing except to stop a wounded goat from getting away where it would have suffered in the wilderness,” Nash said.
It is undisputed that Katzeek was not present at the time shots were fired — the 64-year-old had fallen behind during the hike up the mountain near Mile 19 of Haines Highway — but prosecutors said he knew about the shooter mix-up and conspired to cover it up as well.
“Katzeek is ‘hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil’ but it’s beyond belief that given all this he doesn’t know what’s going on,” Skrocki said.
Like Hicken, Katzeek took the stand in his own defense and steadfastly denied any wrongdoing during the hunt, as well a subsequent hunt in 2011 when unsalvaged goat meat was left up on the mountain. The same assistant guide who testified against him, Stuart DeWitt, had fallen down the mountain and gravely injured himself and left the meat behind. Again, Katzeek was not present, just a packer and two clients (Cox and another Canadian client).
Still, prosecutors say Katzeek was informed that the meat was left behind. Katzeek’s defense attorney Tom Collins said Katzeek returned to the mountain the next day to retrieve the meat, but there were bears in the area, which meant it was unsafe and probably gone already. Collins said the loss of the meat was acceptable given the dangerous situation on the mountain.
Katzeek, who learned to hunt from his father and has been guiding in Haines since 1969, was also charged with smuggling Dall sheep horns into the U.S. from the Yukon, where Katzeek legally hunted a ram in the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary. Collins pointed out that they were Katzeek’s own horns, and Katzeek’s friend brought the horns to him a few years later as a favor, rather than Katzeek going back to Canada to pick them up himself. He didn’t know his friend, who is facing criminal charges in Canada, lied on the paperwork to get them over here until they were already at his door.
“No, I didn’t,” Katzeek repeated over and over when Collins asked during direct examination if Katzeek ever intentionally falsified paperwork, intentionally left unsalvaged meat, conspired with his clients to “deceive the government,” and whether he illegally smuggled the horns into the U.S.
“I’m not a criminal and neither are the three defendants over there,” Katzeek protested at one point during his testimony, gesturing to his codefendants at the crowded defendant’s table.
“I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life,” Katzeek told the Empire during a break in the proceedings on Tuesday, saying he’s never been in trouble before for wildlife offenses. “I’ve got a reputation.”
Collins called multiple character witnesses on Katzeek’s behalf, who all testified to Katzeek’s good character in Haines. Among those who testified for Katzeek were William “Bill” Thomas, a Sealaska Board of Directors member, Roger Schnabel, the president and owner of Southeast Road Builders, and Dave Olerud, a teacher and founder of the American Bald Eagle Foundation.
In closing, Skrocki said even thought his case is about “four dead goats,” it’s still worth prosecuting in order to protect Alaska’s valuable natural resources that draw hunters here from all over the world. Guiding is a big industry in Southeast, he added, and Katzeek bears responsibility as the guide to ensure it’s done in accordance with state and federal law.
Court records show for the 2010 hunt, Hicken and his son Antal each paid $8,000 and Cox paid $10,000. Testimony in court showed Cox paid just $1,500 for the mountain goat hunt in 2011. Attorneys have argued over why Cox was charged so little for that hunt — prosecutors say it’s because Katzeek gave him a break since Cox did not shoot a goat the year prior during the 2010 hunt; the defense says it’s because Cox was a repeat customer and he received a referral discount for bringing along his Canadian friend on the hunt, who was charged full price.
Regardless, “They paid big money to get access to these animals and the opportunity to hunt” in Alaska, Skrocki told the jury, adding, “Wildlife is important. A bald eagle, a goat, a bear, it doesn’t matter. Wildlife is important.”
Katzeek’s attorney, meanwhile, told the jury the guide didn’t do anything wrong or engage in criminal behavior.
“I don’t think Mr. Katzeek’s a criminal, but it’s up to you,” Collins said.