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Lodge owner gets jail time for serving as illegal guide

Casey Grove

A Wasilla lodge owner convicted of guiding illegal hunting and fishing expeditions was sentenced Friday for what Alaska Wildlife Troopers called the worst pattern of violations ever committed in Alaska by a commercial guide.

District Court Judge Catherine Easter sentenced Kurt Lepping to 700 days in jail with 350 days suspended. In addition, Lepping must forfeit two airplanes -- a Cessna 206 and a Piper Super Cub -- and pay fines totaling $85,500.

Easter also ordered that Lepping's license to guide or transport hunters or anglers be permanently revoked and that he not be allowed to hunt or fish for himself for 10 years anywhere in the U.S.

The state assistant attorney general who prosecuted the 55-year-old Lepping called the sentence the second-harshest penalty for fish and wildlife violations in Alaska's history.

A jury convicted Lepping on 23 misdemeanor counts in mid-December. The charges included illegally baiting bears for clients, guiding fishing trips without the proper license, and taking clients fishing for red salmon on a lake that was closed for the species.

Lepping also provided commercial services that exceeded his scope as a pilot licensed only to fly hunters to camps, troopers said. He also broke laws that any hunter -- whether they're a guide or not -- must follow.

Lepping said he plans to appeal. He declined to answer any further questions Friday.

During the sentencing hearing, Lepping's lawyer also said Lepping plans to sell his Alaska Lakeside Lodge to pay fines and attorney fees.

Lepping gave a brief statement to the court.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I can't even comprehend what's going on. (I'm) just trying to survive."

Judge Easter said Lepping's personal problems were not her concern for sentencing, adding that his attitude indicated he still had not taken responsibility for his actions.

Easter sounded incredulous as she shook her head and admonished Lepping just before announcing her sentences for each count.

"As far as I can tell, the defendant is purely motivated by greed, pure and simple greed, and an incredible arrogance that, for some reason, the fish and game laws do not apply to him."

Veteran wildlife trooper Sgt. Katrina Malm, who investigated the case, testified Friday about evidence she uncovered that showed Lepping had been profiting from illegal hunts since 1997.

Malm, a trooper for 12 1/2 years, said Lepping's case was the worst involving a commercial guide that she'd ever seen. She wasn't sure if the tough sentence would make her job any easier in the future, but said it would serve as a significant deterrent to anyone thinking about breaking fish and wildlife laws.

"The goal that wildlife troopers have is voluntary compliance with the laws," she said.

Malm said only 80 wildlife troopers patrol Alaska, a state almost three times the size of Texas. Deterring potential violators before they break the law is the most effective way of protecting fish and big game, said Assistant Attorney General Andrew Peterson, who prosecuted the complex case.

Peterson said he hoped the sentence would convince other hunters to avoid committing what is often a "crime of opportunity," he said.

"This will have an impact for rural wildlife troopers, because it'll make people think twice," Peterson said. "I mean, do you really want to risk losing one or two airplanes? Do you want to risk losing your business?"

Find Casey Grove online at adn.com/contact/casey.grove or call him at 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com