Federal case stalls in Katmai bear killing

Teens admitted slaying six bruins in national preserve

Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2006

HOMER- The case against two teenagers who admitted killing six brown bears in Katmai National Preserve is stalled on the federal level.

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The dead bears were discovered by a pilot in July 2004.

Two juveniles from the village of Kakhonak pleaded guilty to state game crimes last September as a step in a larger federal investigation, state officials said last week.

But nothing visible has occurred since. James Goeke, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, would only say no grand jury charges have been filed. Beyond that, he said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The National Park Service referred all questions to the U.S. attorney.

The federal preserve, just north of Katmai National Park, is a popular destination for both hunters and bear viewers. Unusually large salmon runs in the past few years have drawn big numbers of bears to the area.

Some of the area's bears come from the world-famous state game sanctuary at McNeil River. A trench-deep bear trail crossing a ridge from McNeil River to Funnel Creek can easily be seen from the air.

"I have a significant concern that prosecution is being delayed in hopes that it will go away," said Alaska Wildlife Alliance director John Toppenberg. "It's an open invitation to those that might be inclined to poach bears."

Chris Day, whose Emerald Air Service flies bear viewers to the Katmai preserve from Homer, said last week she had withdrawn reward money contributed toward a $35,000 fund for information.

"I have a real concern when any group, Native or otherwise, gets preferential or deferential treatment," she said. "It breeds contempt."

The first dead bears were discovered two years ago in July by Day's husband, pilot Ken Day, as he led a group of tourists on a hike along Funnel Creek. More dead bears were found on subsequent days.

Four-wheeler tracks in the area led to the village of Kakhonak, 15 miles away.

John Nelson, village council president, said villagers had heard nothing official about the case since investigators arrived two summers ago.

According to charges filed in court last May, state troopers were contacted by a Newhalen man, after the reward was publicized. He told them of three Kakhonak men who took part in shooting the bears. Using a warrant, troopers recorded conversations between the informant and two 16-year-olds in the village. Investigators then served search warrants on their homes.

The men shot the bears at night, using flashlights and all-terrain vehicle headlights, according to the charges. They were shot with a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun.

One teenager, Andrew J. Eknaty, was charged with three misdemeanor game crimes, for taking a bear in a closed season, unlawful possession and unlawful method for taking game. The other, Bobby Hester, was charged with the same crimes and also with failure to salvage the hide and skull.

The two teenagers pleaded guilty last September as part of a deal to testify in the federal case. A third man, who was 19, was named in the state's court filings but has not been charged.

Apart from keeping some claws, their motivation seemed to be "the thrill of shooting some bears," said Roger Rom said, a special prosecutor for the state Department of Law.

Glen Alsworth, the mayor of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, said he plans to ask about the disposition of the case at his next borough assembly meeting.

"If they still are investigating it, it seems like it's taken a long time," he said. "I know it was a very serious thing that happened."

Randy Alvarez, the chairman of the region's federal subsistence council, said Native hunters don't condone wanton waste.

"It gives the village a black eye when people do stuff like that," he said.



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