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Crime & Courts

Trio sentenced for illegal hunting and poisoning wildlife at Alaska lodge owned by renowned pilot

A federal illegal hunting case involving three men working in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve also cost renowned Alaska pilot Urban Rahoi the right to guide hunts at the lodge he operated for decades near the Canadian border.

Urban Rahoi, a World War II veteran, speaks about his career in aviation during a May 8, 2015 flyover in Washington, D.C. Rahoi was 96 at the time. (AP file photo)

Rahoi, who just turned 100, built Ptarmigan Lake Lodge in the 1970s on an inholding near Beaver Creek within the rugged country of Wrangell-St. Elias.

In the case that ended with the employees' sentencing last week, Rahoi was issued a federal violation notice in 2017 for illegal bait sites that were part of an apparent scheme to control predators by drawing bears to bait as well as putting poison in dead rabbits to kill wolves.

The case cost Rahoi his National Park Service concession to guide hunts from his lodge but also his own hunting guide license -- the first one handed out after Alaska statehood.

The three men, all lodge employees, were sentenced Jan. 18 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor and felony charges related to illegal big-game hunts. The charges include allowing out-of-state hunters to kill Dall sheep without a guide, as required by state game laws, in 2014 and 2015, and falsifying hunt records to cover up their crimes. Two of them also killed bears and sheep illegally, charges say.

They are Casey Richardson, 48, of Montana; Jeffrey Harris, 45, of Washington, who worked as a horse wrangler and performed lodge maintenance; and Dale Lackner, a 74-year-old from Haines who was initially the only licensed assistant guide of the three.

Richardson and Harris were also charged with poisoning predators at multiple unregistered bait stations in 2014 and 2015.

As the criminal investigation proceeded, the National Park Service in 2016 suspended Rahoi’s concession contract to operate a guided service out of the lodge and ordered him to refund all hunt clients booked through 2017. He also paid a nearly $5,000 donation to the National Park Foundation.

The National Park Service still has to approve a new contract to run a guiding operation out of the lodge.

Ptarmigan Lake, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, is the location of Ptarmigan Lake Lodge. (National Park Service photo)

Rahoi held the first hunting guide license ever issued in Alaska after statehood in 1959.

His contemporaries include the late Elmer Rasmuson, who expanded the family’s National Bank of Alaska into a statewide financial force, and U.S. Rep. Don Young, at 85 the eldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rahoi and Young were featured with two other Fairbanks legends in a risque local TV ad for a boat and off-road vehicle dealer in 2017.

When Rahoi surrendered his guiding license in 2016, he was 97. He suffered a stroke that year while at the lodge but flew himself to Tok and then drove himself to Fairbanks before being hospitalized, according to a report in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Rahoi now lives in the Fairbanks Pioneer Home, according to a Jan. 10 floor speech by U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who named him “Alaskan of the Week” that day.

Sullivan called Rahoi a man “of great stories, but also of heart, of patriotism, of everything that makes Alaska and America great.”

Rahoi had a remarkable career as an aviator, flying World War II missions in North Africa and Germany. He helped form Interior Airways after coming to Alaska in 1947 and built a reputation as an undaunted bush pilot said to be the only person to survive a rare propeller failure on a Cessna 336.

A Sullivan spokesman said the senator’s office had no comment Thursday when asked about Rahoi’s involvement in the illegal hunting and predator poisoning case.

The federal prosecutor on the case said Rahoi’s political connections did not factor into the decision not to charge him with the more serious illegal hunting crimes.

People involved in the case say it’s more likely Rahoi’s age played a role.

It was one of the men charged -- Lackner -- who triggered the federal investigation in 2015 when he sent Alaska Wildlife Troopers a letter saying he was the only big-game assistant guide at the lodge that year. Social media posts between the men that discussed or showed photos of illegal sheep and bear kills played a key role in the investigation, court documents show.

Rahoi’s name surfaces several times in various documents. He also served as the lodge’s only registered guide, signing off on the hunts referenced in the federal case, according to Lackner’s attorney.

Documents indicate that Rahoi was in charge of how the hunts at the center of the investigation were carried out, and would have had to sign off on the same reports the other men are charged with falsifying.

“You need to see about purchasing a grizzly tag, Urban will sign off on anything we take. I will explain later...” Lackner told Richardson in an email in 2014, according to a sworn affidavit filed to apply for a search warrant for Richardson’s Montana home.

It was Rahoi who bought 15 pounds of xylitol — a known toxin for canines like wolves — at a Fairbanks health food store in 2015, according to the grand jury indictment. The other men discuss using the substance to kill wolves.

“We’re gonna kill a couple rabbits and fill them with zylotol (xylitol) ... and hang them about 3ft up around the bait pile ... with 4lb test line. Let them snatch them and have a sweet treat,” Harris wrote Richardson using a Facebook account, according to the indictment.

“Excellent,” Richardson responded.

Rahoi and Harris also established illegal bear bait stations “as a means of predator control” without getting a state permit and in an area where the stations aren’t allowed, according to the indictment.

Federal agents said they know of at least three black bears and a “huge” blond grizzly illegally killed, assistant U.S. attorney Retta Randall said Thursday. A photo also showed a bald eagle feeding on a bait pile.

It’s unknown how many wolves died, Randall said, but xylitol takes a few hours to kill a canine so any wolves likely would have died a distance away.

The fact that the area around the lodge boasts a “plentiful” population of Dall sheep, especially the rams targeted as trophies, came up at sentencing last week, she said. “This is an area in the country, in the world, which has the largest rams and all the hunters got their sheep on the first day. Really, was predator control even necessary?”

The three former lodge employees were sentenced to five years of probation during which they can’t hunt or assist any hunters, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage. They also must perform more than 100 hours of community service and participate in public service announcements about following hunting laws.

The men were ordered to pay $6,000 to $14,000 in restitution to the Department of Interior Restoration Fund on behalf of the National Park Service, and to the state. Richardson and Harris were sentenced to serve three months in a halfway house followed by three months of house arrest, while Lackner was sentenced to six months of house arrest.

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