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Affection for garter snakes costly for young Alaskan -- and government

Craig Medred
By allegedly capturing an Idaho garter snake and transporting it across state lines, a 23-year-old Alaska firefighter violated the federal Lacey Act. And that would prove costly for all involved. Here's what happened. Aaron Jansen illustration

Little could former Fairbanks dishwasher Matthew Mayo have guessed that his infatuation with the common garter snake would become a federal case destined to see him dragged before a U.S. District Court judge in Alaska.

All the now-23-year-old seasonal firefighter wanted was a friend of the sort found by Lennie Small in the novel "Of Mice and Men" by Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck. It began last summer, when Mayo was far from home in Idaho with a group of other Alaskans fighting forest fires.

"The young men from Alaska, many of whom had never been out of the state, were fascinated by the different climate, terrain and wildlife," court documents record. "Many of the crew members entertained themselves during their off hours by capturing the surrounding lizards and snakes."

Plenty of garter snakes in Idaho

There are no lizards in the great, white north, and as to whether there are snakes, there is some debate. One was found dead along a road near Haines in 2005, and it has been studied and debated since as to whether the snake was a native, a possible relic of an ancient Alaska snake population, a new colonizing species, or a transplant -- accidental or intentional. 

All that is known for sure is that it was a dead garter snake, the same sort of snake Mayo was accused in federal court Dec. 5 of illegally removing from Idaho last summer and bringing to Alaska.

Idaho has plenty of garter snakes. "The Gem State," in fact, made national news in 2011 when a dream house in a rural part of the state turned out be infested with them.

The snakes, The Huffington Post reported, "were so numerous that (homeowner) Ben Sessions once killed 42 in a single day."

It is apparently legal to kill the snakes, but it is not legal to capture them live unless you have a permit, said federal public defender M.J. Haden. She was appointed to represent Mayo -- his seasonal firefighting job long over and his temporary job as Fairbanks restaurant dishwasher gone for the winter -- after the illegally captured Idaho snake became a federal matter.

By allegedly capturing the snake illegally in Idaho, and then transporting it across state lines, Mayo violated the federal Lacey Act, and law-and-order prosecutor Stephen Cooper of Fairbanks, a man famous for his dogged pursuit of the outlaw Jim Wilde, decided the young man needed to be brought to justice.

Thus the out-of-work Mayo found himself in a federal court facing charges with a possible maximum sentence of up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. 

Couldn't part with snakes

Oh, if only Mayo had listened to Alaska Fire Service crew boss Logan Churchwell of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management back in August.

"Churchwell ordered defendant and the other firefighters to release the snakes and not to board the bus with them or the chartered Boeing 737 airfcraft that was to return the firefighters to Fairbanks," according to court documents.

Mayo didn't listen. He'd couldn't part with his five new-found friends -- a two-foot-long garter snake and four others officially described as "smaller snakes."

And Mayo probably didn't do himself any favors when he turned the trip home to Alaska into a "Snakes on a Plane'' adventure.

"During the flight to Fairbanks," court documents say, "at least two six-inch long snakes were observed loose in the aircraft. Churchwell stated he knew the defendant had brought the snakes on board the plane. Churchwell helped capture one of the loose snakes. The other was never caught."

But the plane did land safely.

After the landing, court documents say, Mayo "admitted to Churchwell that he had four snakes left after one had escaped on the flight," and Mayo later agreed to talk to BLM investigators in Fairbanks as they pursed this crime through its serpentine twists.

Mayo, according to court documents, eventually confessed he'd brought the two-foot-long snake home with him, but said the other snakes on the plane belonged to others on the fire crew. Furthermore, he denied the claim that he had been told to release the snakes. And he revealed, according to the documents, "his snake had a baby in Fairbanks, but the young snake died.

"BLM agents took possession of the (mother) snake," leaving Mayo snakeless.

Then began the American-taxpayer-funded prosecution and defense of the out-of-work firefighter. Public defender Haden on Wednesday admitted she's been involved with few cases of less significance. 

"I did have a client once who was charged with goose molestation on the (military) base," she said. "You can't pet a goose."

She also noted that "every case is significant to the person charged." There is no argument there. There is no telling what might have happened to Mayo without legal representation. He might have been headed for federal prison.

Lucky for him, Haden negotiated a plea deal with federal prosecutors, and Mayo is to be sentenced in Fairbanks on Friday.

Government collecting $500

According to a pre-filed sentencing memorandum,”he will plead guilty to illegally transporting the snake and in exchange "the government agrees to recommend a sentence consisting of a $500 fine with no probation, as long as Mr. Mayo can pay the full amount at the time of sentencing. Should Mr. Mayo not have the funds to pay the full $500, he will be placed on probation until such time that the fine is paid in full.

"In addition, the government will recommended that the state of Idaho dismiss the outstanding citations charging Mr. Mayo with taking wildlife without a permit and the unlawful possession of the snake."

Haden, who is based in Anchorage, said she is flying to Fairbanks for the resolution of the case. She could not estimate how much government money has been spent on the defense.

"I can only speak to the hours I've spent on it," she said. "It would be hard for me to say off the top of my head."

She had to review the case, she said, go through the discovery process, meet with her client, go to court with her client, and negotiate the plea deal. It all took time, and time is money.

Federal prosecutors likewise had no estimate of how much they spent to get a conviction and a $500 fine in the great garter snake case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis said the costs would be difficult to calculate, but he would try.

"I'll give you a call back when I know something," he said. He has yet to call back.

"Wow," said Larry Mark Sr., a longtime state firefighting technician in Tok and Mayo's uncle. "I heard about this, but I don't really know what's going on."

The middle-age Mark described Mayo as a "good kid," one of dozens of young Alaska Natives from the Interior who each summer sign up to take on the dangerous work of fighting wildfires both here and Outside.

Mayo did not return a message left on his phone.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com