A Nenana artist who moonlighted as an international dealer in the parts of federally protected animals was sentenced to prison time Friday and forced to surrender more than 900 pounds of wildlife parts and pieces.
Federal prosecutors say Miles W. Martin traded in illegal walrus tusks and skulls, teeth from polar bears and wolves, and the claws of lions and lynx. Martin also sold parts from bald eagles, ravens and trumpeter swans, according to a December 2012 indictment. Working with an undercover agent, an investigation showed Martin shipped such items to countries all over the world.
Martin, 61, pleaded guilty in March to violating the Lacey Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The plea agreement says Martin is banned for life from conducting any business related to wildlife and cannot put pictures of wildlife anywhere on the Internet.
In letters to Martin's sentencing judge, Nenana residents and the Interior Alaska town's mayor described Martin as an upstanding member of their community, an artist who made jewelry and knives and helped teach kids. But Martin also appears to have been connected to a Glennallen couple currently serving time in prison for a walrus ivory smuggling operation in which they sold the ivory and machine guns and were caught with marijuana and coca plants.
According to the March plea agreement, Martin got an export license under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2000. The license expired in 2009, and federal wildlife agents were by then investigating him, the court papers say. In 2010 and 2011, Martin sold assorted illegal animal parts to customers in several European countries and in Australia, Argentina and Japan, among others, according to the original indictment.
"Wildlife will forever feel the pinch of encroachment even in a state as vast as Alaska," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki wrote in a sentencing memorandum in Martin's case. "The Internet has now permitted anyone with a laptop and access to wildlife in wild places the ability to sell coveted wildlife parts anywhere in the world with a few token clicks of a mouse. It permits the anonymous meeting between seller and buyer, with little risk of apprehension or discovery."
In one sale, Martin sold a walrus tusk for $400, the indictment says. He sold walrus tusks and a skull for $2,100 in another. The 28-count indictment does not list the amount of money Martin made in each transaction.
From February 2010 to March 2011, Martin worked with a Glennallen couple to buy illegal walrus tusks and other walrus parts in Savoonga, a village on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, the plea agreement says.
Based on the facts in the court documents, the co-conspirators appear to be Jesse Joseph LeBoeuf, 48, and his long-time companion Loretta Sternbach, 54, who are behind bars following guilty pleas in 2011 for selling hundreds of pounds of illegal walrus ivory, at least two polar bear hides and two illegal machine guns.
In the court documents filed in Martin's case, his Glennallen partners are referred to only as "co-conspirators A and B." But their plot with Martin matches identically the plot described in court papers in the case against LeBoeuf and Sternbach. Skrocki, the prosecutor, also made a direct connection to LeBoeuf in the sentencing memorandum in Martin's case.
"With regard to deterrence, the agencies entrusted to protect and defend the resources of Alaska face daunting obstacles with limited resources to cover a state of such magnitude," Skrocki wrote. "It was only through the work of an undercover agent, and the arrest of Jesse LeBoeuf which brought the defendant to justice."
LeBoeuf and Sternbach traveled to Savoonga to buy walrus parts -- paid for in some transactions with cigarettes, snowmachines and guns -- and brought the material home to Glennallen, according to court documents in their case.
Ten Savoonga residents were later issued notices they violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act for selling the parts to LeBoeuf and Sternbach. An Anchorage man, Blake Weshenfelder, pleaded guilty to helping them advertise animal parts online and sell them.
According to Martin's plea agreement, he paid more than $2,000 to fly his Glennallen partners to Savoonga in August 2011 and gave them $1,000 cash. The pair bought about 275 pounds of tusks and gave Martin some in exchange for financing the trip, the plea agreement says. One of the partners wrote a "gift letter" to Martin that included her Bureau of Indian Affairs identification number in an effort to make the sale look legal, according to the plea agreement.
Federal prosecutors described Martin as not Alaska Native. The Lacey Act prohibits anyone other than Alaska Natives from buying or selling the raw parts of protected animals to non-Natives. Natives are allowed to sell some wildlife parts that are turned into artwork, such as scrimshaw teeth and tusks.
Agents seized more than 900 pounds of animal parts from Martin, prosecutors said. The evidence taken included dozens of orca and beluga whale teeth, "dead birds in a jar," bags of assorted furs and horns, and eight plastic bags of decomposing wildlife, according to prosecutors' sentencing memorandum. Martin was ordered to forfeit elephant ivory, as well, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The sentence handed down Friday -- six months in custody, a $6,750 fine and an order to forfeit the animal parts -- is appropriate and should deter others, the federal prosecutors said in a written statement. The fine was appropriate because of the loss of Martin's business and inventory, Skrocki wrote in the sentencing memorandum.
Martin's attorney, in a memorandum filed before the sentencing, described his client as having "a history of positive contributions in his community, together with significant community support." Attached to the memorandum are several letters from Nenana residents, including the town's mayor.
In one letter, Annette McDonald said Martin sold handcrafted knives and jewelry at the Nenana Cultural Center and was a purchasing agent for its gift shop at one time. Nenana's former school principal, Joseph Krause, wrote that Martin helped teach art, trapping and survival skills to Nenana students.
"Mr. Martin has proven himself to be a good citizen of Nenana through many actions he has taken over the years," Mayor Jason Mayrand wrote. "He ensures that he meets his commitments such as payment of taxes, he is an active member of the chamber of commerce and has made generous donations to local non-profits."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE