Two men who broke marine mammal laws plead guilty

Casey Grove

Two men charged with trading in hundreds of pounds of walrus tusks and two polar bear hides admitted in court Friday to breaking federal marine mammal laws. A third member of the alleged conspiracy is set to enter a guilty plea Tuesday.

In April, prosecutors accused Glennallen residents Jesse James LeBoeuf, 47, and his longtime companion Loretta Audrey Sternbach, 52, of trading cigarettes, guns, snowmachines and other items to Natives in the Saint Lawrence Island village of Savoonga in exchange for federally protected animal parts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux declined to comment on the possibility of charges for the ivory suppliers. By law, only Natives living on the Alaska coast can hunt the mammals, and they can't sell the raw ivory to private collectors.

"The investigation is ongoing," she said.

Anchorage resident Richard Blake Weshenfelder, 50, helped the couple advertise and sell the parts online to out-of-state buyers.

According to documents filed in court after the couple's April 26 arrest, federal agents found about 20 guns -- including an illegal machine gun -- 30 marijuana plants and some coca plants at their Glennallen home. They were charged with buying more than 500 pounds of walrus ivory and two polar bear hides during trips to Savoonga in 2010 and 2011 and illegally selling the animal parts.

LeBoeuf and Weshenfelder accepted plea deals Friday; Sternbach is scheduled for a change of plea hearing on Tuesday.

Prosecutors are asking for a sentence of nine years in prison for LeBoeuf, who also faces one count of possessing firearms as a felon. Weshenfelder faces up to five years and a $250,000 fine. All three defendants are expected to be sentenced in November.

During Friday's hearing, LeBoeuf answered questions for U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, who wanted to know if LeBoeuf understood the many implications of his guilty plea.

"Sir, I just did what I did to get along in life," LeBoeuf told the judge.

Was LeBoeuf satisfied with the legal advice from his court-appointed attorney, M.J. Haden? the judge asked.

"Yes, and she's still helping me so my wife and I can get married," LeBoeuf answered.

While they'd been together for 24 years, the two had never legally wed, LeBoeuf explained later. He worried that once they were imprisoned, their correspondence by mail would be blocked if they weren't married.

Haden asked the judge to set the couple's sentencing on the same day, so they could be married soon after, she said. Burgess agreed.

In the meantime, Haden hoped a court order or letter from the judge would allow Le-Boeuf and Sternbach to continue writing letters to each other.

Burgess asked his clerk to find out what he needed to do to help the couple "consummate" their marriage, quickly noting that he'd chosen the wrong word.

"Yeah, we did that a long time ago," Le-Boeuf said, to brief laughter in the courtroom.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.