3 charged in scheme to sell walrus tusks, bear hides

9-month investigation cites black market sales of tusks, hides.

April 28, 2011 

A Glennallen couple illegally trafficked walrus tusks and polar bear hides purchased during visits to an Alaska Native village over the past year, according to charges filed this week in federal court. The duo is accused of trading cigarettes, guns, snowmachines and other goods for federally protected animal parts, some of which they in turn sold to buyers out of state.

Loretta Audrey Sternbach, 52, and her companion, Jesse Joseph Leboeuf, 46, face seven felony counts for the alleged sales of the hides and tusks and two weapons charges related to an accusation they owned an illegal machine gun. Leboeuf also faces a single count of being a felon in possession of firearms.

Authorities arrested the pair Tuesday in Glennallen. They pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday at the federal courthouse in Anchorage.

Prosecutors said an Anchorage man, 50-year-old Richard Blake Weshenfelder, advertised the tusks online and communicated with potential buyers. Weshenfelder faces one count of conspiring to violate a federal endangered species law.

The indictment reveals a nine-month investigation into the black market for illegal animal parts in Alaska.

Sternbach and Leboeuf are accused of buying two polar bear hides and more than 500 pounds of walrus tusks during multiple trips to the Saint Lawrence Island village of Savoonga in 2010 and 2011.

"There's a significant quantity of ivory," Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux said just after the Thursday hearings. A single tusk can weigh 3 to 10 pounds, so the total amount represents ivory from about 100 walruses, Lamoureux said.

Lamoureux said in court that the government's "voluminous" evidence in the case includes numerous audio recordings. The indictment includes detailed, eyewitness accounts of the animal parts changing hands.

Prosecutors also said Leboeuf and Sternbach twice sold a fully automatic machine gun to an undercover agent.

Authorities say they found guns, drugs, stolen art and walrus ivory when they raided the couple's home.

MORE CHARGES?

Leboeuf may have suspected he was being watched before even before federal agents arrested the couple in Glennallen.

According to Lamoureux, Leboeuf stepped outside the house to "conduct counter-surveillance" and fired a pistol -- apparently at nobody in particular -- and then let his dogs loose in the yard surrounding their home.

Agents soon arrested Leboeuf and Sternbach and executed a search warrant on their home. Leboeuf wore a .22 caliber pistol in a holster on his belt, Lamoureux said.

Inside the home, the agents found about 20 guns, 30 marijuana plants and some coca plants with which the couple intended to make cocaine, Lamoureux said. There was also an unregistered, fully automatic Colt M16 machine gun they hoped to sell, Lamoureux said.

"She had commented it was a 'bad-ass gun' and that she wanted it for herself," Lamoureux said in court.

The couple sold one fully automatic machine gun to an undercover federal agent in December 2010 and a machine gun with a silencer to an undercover agent in February 2011, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Lamoureux and fellow prosecutor Steve Skrocki said they could not comment on any additional charges related to the marijuana and coca plants or the alleged sales of machine guns.

Skrocki, also an assistant U.S. attorney, said the Leboeuf-Sternbach case is not related to recent arrests of Fairbanks-area militia members, who allegedly bought machine guns and pistols with silencers.

The prosecutors would also not comment on any future charges against the Savoonga villager or villagers who harvested and sold the ivory. None of the people who sold the animal parts to the Glennallen couple are named in the indictment, nor are the out-of-state buyers.

"The investigation is ongoing," Lamoureux said.

TRADING FOR TUSKS

The court papers say Leboeuf traveled to Savoonga seven times between August 2010 and March 2011 to get walrus tusks and other bones. Sternbach made the trip several times, but when she was not present Leboeuf asked the sellers to falsify records saying Sternbach, an Alaska Native, had purchased the ivory, according to the indictment.

On those trips, the couple bought the animal parts with money or traded for them with guns, ammo, marijuana, cigarettes, and snowmachines, among other things, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Sternbach and Leboeuf sold the ivory and polar bear hides to different buyers -- including at least one in Colorado and one in California -- in several separate transactions, taking in roughly $22,000 for a total of about 230 pounds of tusks and $2,700 for two polar bear hides, according to the indictment.

In January, Leboeuf told a buyer to bring cigarette cartons along on a trip to Savoonga because he could trade them for tusks or simply sell the smokes for $100 a carton.

In an attempt to make the transactions appear legal to their buyers, Sternbach penned "gift letters" to them that included official tag numbers for the tusks and proof she was an Alaska Native, prosecutors said.

It is a violation of federal law -- the Lacey Act -- for anyone other than Alaska Natives to buy or sell parts from protected animals. Natives are allowed to make art from tusks and some other raw parts, which can then be sold to non-Natives. But the selling or gifting of the parts to non-Natives is forbidden, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Interior Department listed polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.

While the couple allegedly made thousands of dollars from the sales, both Sternbach and Leboeuf gave sworn statements at their Thursday arraignments that they had no money and few other assets.

"I had 50 cents when they brought me to jail and I think I had $1.20 on the counter at home," Leboeuf said.

Later, Leboeuf said he did not want to oppose a judge's order to hold him in jail until a hearing next week.

"You don't want to get out?" asked MJ Hayden, a federal public defender representing Leboeuf.

"I don't really care," Leboeuf said. "I don't have anything."


Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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