It was a fish tale of epic proportions. And it ended with a felony conviction in federal court.
A Fairbanks jury on Friday convicted Willis Scott Maxon, 52, for lying about the type of salmon he was selling at events in Alaska and to out-of-state buyers.
Maxon, who resides in Nenana, sold smoked salmon strips he claimed were from king and red salmon caught on the Yukon and Copper rivers. But according to court documents, DNA tests showed the fish strips were actually chum salmon, which is cheaper, lower quality and most often fed to dogs.
The case of the ersatz salmon started in October 2009, the court papers say.
Maxon and his wife, Evangeline, were at a table selling salmon strips at the entrance to the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage for the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. Maxon told a state subsistence coordinator he'd been selling the fish at AFN for 20 years, according to a trial brief filed in the case. He said the strips were king salmon.
The state worker didn't believe Maxon's story. It had been a bad year for kings, the price was high, and he suspected Maxon's fish were caught under the guise of subsistence, not commercially and therefore illegal to sell.
Two undercover wildlife agents later approached Maxon with hidden video cameras, the court papers say. Maxon told them the fish was king salmon from near Saint Mary's on the Yukon, some from the Copper River, and that he was part of a co-op called Stevens Fisheries. He said he sold thousands of pounds a year to customers in places like Hawaii, Arizona and Nevada.
Maxon gave the agents some salmon collars. Later that same day, he sold two pounds of strips to a state investigator for $60. Lab tests showed the strips were made from chums, not kings, according to the court document.
The following December, an Arizona wildlife agent posed as an out-of-state customer and called Maxon about getting some strips. He bought 50 pounds for $1,250. Again, Maxon said the fish were kings.
Two boxes sent from Nenana arrived about a month later. Both boxes were labeled "kings" in felt-tipped marker. But they also said something else.
"The boxes were reused from a previous shipment which was described by markings on the box as having been a shipment of 'Wild Keta Salmon' -- Keta being the Gwitch'in (Alaska Native) word for chum salmon -- that was sent from Copper River Seafoods in Cordova to Scott Maxon in July 2009," the trial brief says.
And if there was still any doubt, the investigators tested the fish. Back at the lab, analysis showed the "king" was actually chum.
The next July, Maxon was again selling salmon strips at an event. This time it was the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks and he was posted up at the Carlson Center. An undercover federal agent bought two pounds of what Maxon said was Copper River red salmon and later turned out to be chum. The Arizona agent later bought another 50 pounds, with the same result, according to the trial brief.
The court document seems to indicate the Alaska agents searched Maxon's home in Nenana.
"Defendant's stock of inventory at his home in the Nenana area contained almost exclusively chum salmon, and his business records showed largely, if not entirely, purchases of chum salmon rather than kings," the court papers say.
Maxon had about 400 pounds of chum and silver salmon and didn't have documents that said the fish was commercially caught, according to a written statement from U.S. Attorney's Office.
At his trial last week in Fairbanks, prosecutors presented evidence that Maxon bought more than 16,000 pounds of salmon from Alaska fish processors between 2007 and 2010. All of the fish he bought was chum salmon, which is one-fifth the wholesale price of king salmon, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
The Fairbanks jury convicted Maxon of false identification of wildlife, a felony. Maxon's sentencing is set for April and he faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.