They ate the evidence

Giant-chinook- nappers face charges of burglary, theft, evidence tampering

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

Tracing the final hours of the giant king salmon stolen from Seafood Producers Co-Op in Sitka and secretly cut up into fillets, police say they know what happened to the heisted fish: it went to a party.

Officer Todd Taylor said he received a tip from a credible source this week about the identity of the fish-nappers. Under questioning the suspects admitted their involvement.

"Once I started hitting the screw, the story came out pretty quickly," he said.

He learned that on the night of July 16, the day the prodigious 51 1/2-inch, 82-pound chinook was brought to the SPC dock by commercial trollers, the topic of the fish came up at a party attended by about 15 to 20 people in their early 20s.

A lot of people had gone down to the SPC dock to see the fish that day.

"At some time during the party, discussion came up about the fish," said Taylor. "Someone suggested going to get the fish -- almost as a prank."

Taylor said this is the story that evolved from his investigation:

Around midnight five people from the party loaded into a van and drove to SPC with the intent of taking the giant fish.

Two of them simply went into the unlocked freezer, grabbed the fish and walked out of the building while the night shift workers at the seafood plant went about their business around them. Some time later an employee saw that the fish was missing.

The fish snatchers took the big king back to their party and set it up so they could look at it and take pictures of themselves with it.

The two who had snatched the fish said they intended to take the fish back to the plant. But that didn't happen.

After keeping the fish at the party about 45 minutes, they got concerned about keeping it frozen. They decided to take it to a charter operator's freezer that one of the group knew would be accessible at night.

They loaded the fish into a different vehicle and drove it out to the charter freezer on Halibut Point Road, where more people saw it.

At about 6:30 that morning, one of the men who had taken the fish from SPC went out to the HPR freezer, loaded up the fish and took it to his home, where he filleted it out and got rid of the remains.

While no formal charges have been filed against anyone in connection with the stolen fish, Taylor said he will most likely recommend a combination of three charges for those involved.

He will most likely charge the suspects who went into SPC to get the fish with theft and burglary, he said.

"Any time you enter a building with the intent to commit a crime, it's a burglary," Taylor said. The theft of items valuing $500 or less is a misdemeanor, but burglary and tampering with evidence are class C felonies, he said.

The three people who remained in the van will likely be charged with theft, and the person who cut up the fish will be charged with tampering with evidence, he said.

Taylor said he will submit his report and recommendations Monday to the assistant district attorney, who will then decide on charges.

Class C felonies can carry a sentence of up to five years in jail with a maximum fine of $50,000, and misdemeanor theft can carry a jail sentence of up to 90 days with a $1,000 maximum fine.

At the going rate being paid for kings at the dock, the big one was worth about $102 to the trollers who caught it.

Its value as one of the biggest on record for Southeast Alaska is another matter.

"Beyond that (the dock price), the value is probably substantially more," said SPC Plant Manager Craig Shoemaker. Exactly how much more is difficult to calculate, experts told the Sentinel.

Although the fish probably weighed about 93 pounds when it was caught on July 15, it was caught on commercial gear and therefore was never eligible for the sport fishing record book. Nevertheless, Shoemaker said SPC had planned to mount the fish for display.

Tacoma fish taxidermist Dave Campbell said a quality mount of the fish would cost anywhere from $1,200 to $4,000.

Despite the rarity of a fish as big as the SPC chinook, Campbell said that once it was mounted it would be difficult to turn a profit on it.

"I don't know if there's a real big market for already-mounted fish," he said.

As food, the fillets or steaks from a king salmon of this size probably would not be gourmet fare, said Phil Rodriguez, executive chef of the Raven Dining Room at the Westmark Shee Atika Hotel in Sitka.

"Generally the older the fish gets, the consistency of the meat deteriorates," he said.

The fish was brought in July 15 by Paul Olson and Joey Carpenter aboard the commercial troller Valiant Hunter near Shelikof Bay.

The fishermen said the big king was docile as it came to the surface, putting up little of the fight that might easily have allowed it to wrench free of the gear.

The official record for a king salmon caught on sport gear is 97 pounds, 4 ounces, for a fish landed on the Kenai River in 1985. Any salmon over 50 pounds caught in Southeast qualifies for the "trophy" category.

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