Alaska News

PEOPLE IN PERIL: Fighting a frustrating war

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

Nov. 22, 1986, was a Saturday that seemed like a turning point for St. Marys.

Larry Ledlow, an Alabaman reputed to be one of western Alaska's biggest bootleggers, was sitting in jail on felony liquor sale charges. In the cell with him was his alleged runner, Paul Johnson Jr.

Willie Fancyboy, a 20yearold with a responsible job, a future, a girlfriend and an alcohol problem he was starting to control, had put them there.

Come the following May, everything was upsidedown.

Ledlow and Johnson were walking the streets as free men, all charges dismissed because of error and inattention by officials.

And Willie Fancyboy was dead, the victim of months of harassment, of neglect by the authorities he helped, and finally of a shotgun he himself wielded.

In a part of the state where bootlegging is rampant and prosecution often ineffective or nonexistent, the case of Fancyboy and Larry Ledlow is more than the story of a tragic young man who fell apart under pressure, or of a middleaged man who got lucky. It is an illustration of the frustrations faced by the people who want to combat the effects of alcohol as an agent of death and despair in the Bush.

"It's demoralizing the community, because nothing can be done," says St. Marys Mayor Andrew Paukan. "We know who the people are, but we can't get them."

Ledlow, a pilot with his own plane, is chief among them, Paukan said.

St. Marys is a regional hub on the YukonKuskokwim Delta, a village of 563 people with a huge barge dock on the Yukon River, a jetport five miles out of town, two general stores, a threeman police force, one state trooper and a courthouse staffed by a parttime, resident magistrate.

It is also a place where the sale and importation of alcoholic beverages have been banned since a villagewide referendum on Sept. 22, 1981.

"I don't miss any chance I get to flaunt that law, because I don't believe in it," Ledlow says. "No matter what the authorities do in attempting to enforce importation, you can't take just a small area, like the village of St. Marys, and surround it with a barbed wire fence and keep all the avenues of approach out. When people want it, they'll find ways to get it."

"EXCITING DAYS'

Six months after the charges against him were dismissed, Ledlow was wintering with his family in a small town near Montgomery, Ala., while others were taking care of his business in St. Marys.

In a telephone interview, he said the charges against him were unjustified because he doesn't sell booze. But over the years, his name has been associated with whiskey.

Ledlow, 55, is the son of a Baptist minister. Both his parents are teetotalers. He arranged to be interviewed at a pay phone so his parents wouldn't overhear him talking about whiskey and his trouble with the law.

He first came to Alaska during the postwar years as an Air Force signals specialist. As a civilian, he followed the military White Alice communications system to Aniak. The place was booming and wide open, two conditions that appealed to Ledlow.

"Yeah, those were exciting days. When I first came there, there was only one or two marshals for the whole area. I tell you what, a man could do about anything he was man enough to defend his ground on."

That's just what he was doing in 1969 or 1970, when a preacher armed with a movie camera tried to get evidence he was bootlegging. Ledlow had just returned from a booze run to the Red Devil liquor store upriver when he saw the preacher "tiptoeing" around his plane, trying to film the liquor inside.

"I went out and hollered at him. When I saw what he was doing, I was going to get the camera and bust it up. I started chasing him and he took a swing at me with the camera, and the strap on the camera broke from his wrist. The camera hit the ground, so I gave it a couple kicks and figured that was probably good enough."

Ledlow moved to St. Marys in 1971. He set up an air taxi service and eventually a commuter airline to Bethel. The Internal Revenue Service seized his business in 1983 for failure to pay taxes. He hasn't worked a regular job since.

On July 2, 1985, just before the big Fourth of July weekend and the usual drunken bashes that accompany it, a cargo supervisor at the Seair terminal in Bethel noticed some damaged baggage come off a flight from Anchorage. There were five large Styrofoam containers labeled frozen foods, and they were checked by a passenger flying on to St. Marys.

Three of the containers were smashed. The supervisor looked inside. They were filled with R&R Canadian whiskey, one of the popular Bush brands. He called the troopers.

SMUGGLING CHARGE

Ledlow turned out to be the passenger who had checked in the whiskey, but he denied it was his. The troopers didn't believe him, and he was charged with smuggling liquor into St. Marys, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

The trial was originally set for Nov. 12, 1985. But Ledlow complained of ailments and the trial was reset and reset again. On Oct. 15, 1986, the charges were dismissed by the district attorney's office when, two days before trial, prosecutors realized they didn't know how to find one of their main witnesses, an extrooper.

People in town marvel at the luck and economic wellbeing of a man whose sole apparent business is a onecar taxi company and some rental property. Said Bob Bullard, the village police officer: "He has no employment, his wife doesn't work. They just put new siding up on the house. He owns his own plane, a (Cessna) 207. He just remodeled the apartment. He owns six houses, including his own. In '85, he went overseas to visit some relatives, and he took his whole family there."

Ledlow acknowledges his reputation as the biggest bootlegger on the Yukon Delta. "I go about my business and let those rumors go right on over my head," he said.

He agrees that he seems to be well off for someone who doesn't work. He says the airplane belongs to his brotherinlaw, though his brotherinlaw doesn't have a pilot's license. Ledlow attributes his wellbeing to frugality, "a subsistencestyle life," and state assistance programs that subsidize energy consumption for Bush residents. Because he still owes about $70,000 to the IRS, he said, he wouldn't provide any details of his personal finances.

"It all just adds up from all over," he said. "I always got some kind of little something going on."

SETTING UP A BUST

The authorities in town suspect Ledlow made as many as two booze flights a week, bringing in five to 10 cases of whiskey at a time, perhaps from Nome or Galena, maybe from as far away as Anchorage. At $60 a bottle, the going price in St. Marys and surrounding villages, that would produce a gross weekly profit of $3,000 to $6,000.

Ledlow is hard to bust, Bullard said, because he only sells through intermediaries, and they sell only to people they know.

That's where Willie Fancyboy fit in.

On Nov. 19, 1986, St. Marys' thencity manager, Gary Oba, got a tip from the vice mayor, Wilfred Stevens, that Ledlow was off on a booze run. Oba told police officer Bullard, who drove to the airport and confirmed that Ledlow's Cessna was gone.

Bullard passed on the tip to Trooper Craig Macdonald in Bethel.

That night, Fancyboy was busted for consuming alcohol as a minor. Sometime before daylight, Ledlow's plane landed at the airport.

Macdonald flew to St. Marys. He met privately with Fancyboy, and asked where he got his booze. When the conversation was over, Fancyboy had agreed to make a buy for the police.

The operation was set up for that afternoon. Bullard hid in the magistrate's office, across the street from the house of Paul Johnson Jr., 25, a suspected runner for Ledlow. Macdonald stationed himself on a hill. Another officer watched Ledlow's place.

Fancyboy had $60 in marked money when he walked into Johnson's house at 5:40 p.m. Johnson took the money, and said he would get the whiskey, according to affidavits. The police watched Johnson get on his threewheeler and drive over to Ledlow's house. He walked inside, then came out carrying a camouflage pack. Johnson drove back to his house and handed Fancyboy a bottle of R&R.

Two hours later, Fancyboy bought a second bottle from Johnson, the police say.

Ledlow and Johnson were arrested the next day and charged with two felony counts each of selling liquor to a minor. Ledlow also was charged with importing alcohol into a dry village. They spent two days in jail before making bail.

Normal police procedure is to conceal the identity of the "buy agent" in narcotics or bootleg busts as long as possible. But if Johnson or Ledlow had any doubt about who turned them in, it would have been erased when they were handed the criminal complaint. The police agent was identified as "W.F." Fancyboy's picture might just as well have been pasted to the complaint.

Francine Elia, a junior at the Catholic Mission High School, was out of town on a school trip when the bust occurred. When she returned, she didn't understand why people were saying bad things about her boyfriend Fancyboy.

"They were the guys who are friendly with Ledlow. They'd say things like, "You're going with a narc. How could you do that?' I wouldn't say anything. I'd just walk off."

They were saying it to Fancyboy's face, too.

But it was more than just words. Fancyboy's snowmachine was vandalized. First the wires were ripped out. Then, in succession, the windshield was smashed, the seat cut, his helmet stolen.

Fancyboy wanted it to stop. He talked to the St. Marys magistrate. Can I change my mind about testifying, he asked. He called up Ledlow. I'm sorry, he said. He spoke to Johnson. I apologize, he said.

But mostly he wouldn't talk about it, not to his girlfriend, not to the people at work.

NO PLACE TO TURN

Before the bust Fancyboy thought poorly of himself, his girlfriend said, and he withdrew deeper with each passing day.

No one offered him counseling, and because he lived in neighboring Pitkas Point, he didn't have the protection of St. Marys police. Fancyboy was struggling with alcohol too, Francine said. Still, he held a responsible job assistant grocery manager at the Yukon Traders general store.

At the same time, the bust was starting to go wrong. In January, the police and witnesses assembled in Bethel for a session before the grand jury. The troopers were seeking a felony indictment against Ledlow and Johnson.

"Everyone was there and was sober," Macdonald said.

But five minutes before the case was to be presented, District Attorney Bryan Schuler walked into the room and announced that it would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, Macdonald said. Schuler gave no reason, he recalled.

In a recent interview from his new home in Honolulu, Schuler said he couldn't remember why he reduced the charge.

The case went back to St. Marys, and the DA's office promptly forgot about it.

Magistrate Denice Beans, a nonlawyer, rearraigned the pair on the misdemeanors on Feb. 18. She set a trial date in April. She didn't realize that April was too late under Alaska's speedy trial rule.

Beans said she thought the speedytrial clock started ticking when the pair was arraigned on the reduced charges. No one told her she was wrong that the clock starts with the initial arrest, in this case, November. When the defense attorneys brought it up, it was too late to fix. The charges were dismissed April 20.

"We should track those kinds of things, but we were handling 1,300 cases a year," Schuler said.

Ledlow said he would have won the case anyway. There was no evidence he sold whiskey to anyone, he said.

In an interview, Johnson said he was drunk and couldn't remember what happened that day.

A DEADLY OUTBURST

On May 2, Wilfred Stevens, the vice mayor who provided the tip on Ledlow, committed suicide. He was Francine Elia's brotherinlaw and a good friend of Fancyboy's. Stevens had been severely depressed since his brother Eddie drowned the year before. Eddie's birthday would have been the next day.

"It was hard on Willie," Francine said. "After that happened, he hardly ever talked."

Two weeks later, on a night that was supposed to be a celebration, a grand reunion for graduates of the St. Marys Mission School, Fancyboy got terribly drunk and frightfully angry. He shoved his girlfriend into the dirt, went home and threatened his family with a shotgun. Then he turned the weapon on himself and blew out his guts.

How much of a part did the Ledlow bust play in his death? The troopers, police and officials who have an opinion say it played a role, but no one knows how much.

Ledlow blames Fancyboy's death entirely on the police. "They forced him into doing something he didn't want to do," he said. "They should have put him in a counseling program and accepted the fact that he's underage. They ultimately caused him to get in such a mental state that he ended up committing suicide."

The failure of either of the Ledlow cases to even reach trial has proved frustrating for St. Marys officials. Bethelbased troopers say the problems encountered in St. Marys are repeated all over the huge region they patrol.

Trooper Simon Brown, who investigated Fancyboy's death, said most agents used by police to buy alcohol and drugs don't understand the depth of the problems they will face, even if those problems are explained beforehand.

"A lot of men I talk to, they'll never talk to a cop again after they make a buy. It turns them off to police, to the whole system, and we lost them."

PROBLEMS IN DA'S OFFICE

Macdonald said police agents frequently are harassed by the subjects of a bust, or their friends who no longer have a source of liquor or drugs. "They're well aware that if they can keep the informant from talking, they can walk." Law enforcement in the Bush is so thin that there is little protection for an informant who remains in a village.

Other followers of the case harshly criticize Schuler, who held the post of DA from February 1985 until he was caught shoplifting more than $100 worth of stereo tapes on July 2, 1987. The city of St. Marys twice complained to the attorney general's office about his conduct in office, but got no serious response, said Mayor Paukan and Gary Oba, the former city manager.

"There was a consistent dissatisfaction with his reluctance or refusal to prosecute cases coming out of St. Marys," said Oba, now in the foreign service of the U.S. State Department. "In the early stages, it seemed to be friction between Mr. Schuler and our police officer. We worked with Mr. Bullard and attempted to get him to follow the procedures that Mr. Schuler set down, and it didn't seem to make any further difference."

Schuler seemed to demand such high standards of evidence gathering that he would take only sure cases, "nothing that would require any effort to prosecute," Oba said.

The problems in the DA's office were not lost on criminal defendants.

"You see, these people are getting smart," Ledlow said. "They know now there's only so many cases that can be tried in the YukonKuskokwim Delta. And so they're entering a plea of not guilty, no matter whether they're guilty or not. This puts a further load on the district attorney's office. If they end up with the ones they can plea bargain away, well they do, and the ones that they can't, a lot of times they go and dismiss them, and the ones they can take to trial, they do."

Schuler said his office went from a threeattorney staff in 1985 to just himself in 1986. That made a tough job tougher.

"We had historically about 10 times the national homicide rate. We had no roads. Not only did a lot of our witnesses not speak English, a lot of jurors don't speak English. It's not their fault, but it's not exactly like being in rural Indiana," Schuler said.

For the St. Marys residents trying to follow the example set in 1981 by Patrick Beans Sr., who initiated the movement to make it a dry village, the recent past has been filled with frustration.

“We’d like to see it dry, but the bootleggers are bringing the booze in,” said Mayor Paukan. “We’re helpless in getting the bootleggers caught because they’re so smart. We’re frustrated about the law. We can’t do nothing.”

Richard Mauer

Richard Mauer was a longtime reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

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