BOISE, Idaho -- A guided salmon fishing trip in Alaska? With meals and a four-night stay in a place called the Lost Yeti Lodge? That caught Gary Pacheco’s eye at a charity auction in March 2018.
Pacheco made the winning bid and got a call the next day from Access Life's Adventures, the Treasure Valley-based business that had donated the trip, he says.
"If I wanted to take a second person, it would be at a discounted price," Pacheco, who lives in California, told the Idaho Statesman. So he paid for another person: his son.
Four months later, Pacheco says, he and his son were in Alaska with no tour guide, no cabin and a text message telling him that the trip was canceled.
Pacheco sued Access Life's Adventures owners Keith "Craig" Fletcher and wife Crystal Fletcher in small claims court last year. He won a $3,355 judgment against them in April -- what Pacheco paid to add his son to the trip, plus unexpected lodging, rental car and meal costs, he said.
That wasn't the only lawsuit against the business or its owners. And it wouldn't be the last.
In July the Idaho Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit saying that 50 customers paid the Fletchers and their business a total of $190,306 for guided vacations in 2018 that never happened.
The Idaho Statesman has found that complaints and litigation against Craig Fletcher for guided trips, sold in connection with charity auctions, date back to 2008. He told the Statesman that the reason for the complaints about 2018 trips is "just a perfect storm" of bad fishing conditions in Alaska, a family emergency, his own health issues, and uncooperative customers who are "trashing my good name."
Fletcher says he has taken veterans on fishing trips for free and asks why nobody put him in the spotlight for that.
"There's just a lot of gray in this," he said. "I'm not perfect by any means, but I'm trying to make things right."
In Alaska waiting for a fishing trip
Gary Pacheco and his son began their Alaska vacation on July 1 last year. The fishing trip was to launch July 2, but they wanted to fly into Anchorage a day early to beat the holiday travel rush, he said.
Pacheco arranged for their early arrival with Crystal Fletcher, he said. She offered to let Pacheco and his son stay in a cabin of theirs, he said.
"They were going to pick me up at the airport," he told the Statesman.
But when Pacheco and his son arrived, it was 2 a.m., and nobody was at the airport waiting for them, he said. He called Craig Fletcher.
"He acted like he didn't even know we were coming in," Pacheco told the Statesman. "He said, 'I'll be there in the morning to pick you up. Go ahead and get a hotel room.' "
Pacheco gave the Idaho Attorney General's Office copies of text messages he exchanged with Fletcher. They started the morning of Sunday, July 1, with Fletcher telling Pacheco that he was on his way but his flight was delayed in Seattle. The last text Fletcher sent was about 11 a.m. on July 2, saying he was in Alaska but needed to return to Idaho immediately.
"I was just informed of a family emergency at home," he wrote, apologizing and saying that Crystal would follow up with options to reschedule or get a refund.
"He just kept putting us off," Pacheco said. "He proceeded to give us one excuse after another."
Pacheco and his son eventually found another outfitter to take them fishing, "and it turned out to be an awesome trip," he said. They drove a few hours to a fishing spot and caught their limit in salmon "almost every day," he said.
The Fletchers later offered Pacheco two choices, he said: a refund or a trip in Hawaii the following year.
Pacheco opted for the refund. He crossed out the section of the refund form that waived his right to sue, and returned it, he said. When he didn't get any money back, he sued in Canyon County court.
Court records say the Fletchers have not paid Pacheco their court-ordered judgment. Craig Fletcher told the Statesman that he hasn't paid "because he's one of the customers who badmouthed me. ... He's one of the parties we're suing for more than he owes me."
Fletcher said he doesn’t believe a court-ordered judgment must be paid. He said he can offer to settle for less than the amount ordered by the court, which is true; and that he doesn’t owe the money if the other party fails to return to court to renew the judgment, which is not true. A judgment must be renewed if it has expired -- something that happens many years after a court order was issued.
One legal judgment against him in Alaska, for a trip operated under a previous company, was issued in June 2009. Judgments expire after 10 years in Alaska.
“I tried settling with them on that judgment,” he said in an interview this week. “Now I don’t owe them anything.”
Family emergency, bad fishing season, health problems
The AG's office opened a formal investigation of Access Life's Adventures in February after receiving a string of complaints from people with canceled trips to Alaska and Hawaii.
The customers -- from Idaho, Washington, Montana, California and Ohio -- said they paid anywhere from $2,400 to $16,000. Some of them said the Fletchers and their business were unreachable when they tried to schedule their trips or get a refund.
Several customers submitted the brochures and introductory letters for their fishing trips, as well as emails they exchanged with Access Life's Adventures.
The brochures and letters advertise a four-night stay in the Lost Yeti Lodge, full meals with different nightly themes, a shuttle to and from the airport, and four days of fishing. The retail value for each package was listed as $5,800 or $7,500 for one person.
After months of back and forth with the Fletchers, the AG's office made them a settlement offer: They could stay out of the guided-vacation business for five years and issue an estimated $110,556 in refunds to aggrieved customers by November. Otherwise, the state would sue them, the notice said.
The Fletchers declined the offer, according to the AG's lawsuit. Asked why they turned it down, Craig Fletcher told the Statesman in an email that he found it "ridicul(ous)."
Fletcher offered his side of the story in a letter to the attorney general in February.
"We have never had any intention of retaining payments for services that were not rendered and have made every effort to deliver these services and resolve the complaints of our customers," he wrote.
The letter cited "an unusually late spring" that delayed the preparations for the season; the low fish counts in Alaskan waters; and "major health issues that were making it very difficult to work."
Those health issues arose in late June 2018, the letter said.
"After leaving Alaska and going back to Idaho to seek medical treatment, my medical condition continued to worsen as I learned that my organs were functioning at dangerously low levels and I was at risk of complete organ failure," Fletcher wrote. "I was advised by my doctors to stop working and eliminate as much stress as possible."
The Fletchers had to rely on family to pay their rent, medical costs, car payment and other bills, he wrote.
"We have never had the intention to harm any of our clients, but we feel that some of them have intentionally sought to cause us harm," he wrote. "... These individuals have slandered us through our friends and associates and have used social media, online review forums and government agencies to destroy our business, reputation and to extort extra money from us."
Fletcher told the Statesman he had kidney failure that landed him in the hospital, and that was the main reason for canceling the trips last year. He did not provide admission and discharge records to the Statesman.
"Spent the last year fighting for my life," he told the Statesman in an email. "Added stress and deadlines causes more kidney issues. So I have to manage it carefully."
Emails the Fletchers sent to customers in early July 2018 referenced a family emergency. Craig Fletcher told the Statesman the emergency was his son getting in a car crash.
"We are temporarily away addressing an unexpected family emergency. Due to the nature of the emergency, will not be able to respond to text, phone calls, or emails until after July 16," said an email sent July 6, 2018. "Thank you for your understanding and patience as we navigate through this difficult time."
Another customer received an email July 14, 2018, saying the Fletchers had decided to cancel all trips for the season.
"This season has brought about many unexpected conditions that have made our normal operations very difficult to manage and has affected the overall quality of product to our clients," it said.
The main reason, it said, was the "unprecedented low fish counts which have never before been seen in Alaska's history." King salmon were off limits to fish, and the rivers were high, muddy and unsafe, the letter said.
Indeed, there were some restrictions placed on fishing in parts of Alaska last year. One type of salmon came through the waters north of Anchorage -- the area advertised by Access Life’s Adventures -- in such low numbers that some Alaska fisheries pushed for a disaster declaration.
The letter to customers offered three options: reschedule for a future date in Alaska with helicopter instead of jet-boat transportation; reschedule for a future date in Hawaii; or request a refund, which would be issued in two parts over 60 to 90 days. Those who chose to reschedule would get 25,000 Alaska Airline miles as a gift, it said.
At least one customer opted to reschedule, but the rescheduled trip was canceled, they said in their complaint to the Idaho Attorney General.
Fishing guides, fishing licenses
The Idaho Attorney General's Office also heard from a former guide, hired by Access Life's Adventures.
Mark Abel filed a complaint in March, saying he hadn't been paid or reimbursed for his travel to Alaska for the job. His and the other workers' unpaid wages are in excess of $15,000, he wrote.
"Like the guests, we discovered the hard way that there is no lodge, cabins or any such accommodations," he wrote.
Abel told the Statesman that guides were not given lodging and instead had to camp in tents along a highway. They were expected to take customers fishing on a boat that wasn’t suited to the task, he said.
Abel said he has filed a complaint over being classified as an independent contractor instead of an employee. (One of the big differences between the two is that independent contractors must withhold extra taxes from their paychecks, since they don't have an employer taking care of those payroll taxes.)
Craig Fletcher said he's planning to sue former contractors, including sales representatives.
"What's funny is all these people owe me money," he said.
Alaska, Hawaii, Texas and Oregon
The website and Facebook page for Access Life’s Adventures have been taken down. But in archived versions of the website, it advertises guided fishing and big-game hunting trips in Hawaii, Texas and Oregon. It says the couple started Access Life’s Adventures in 2015.
The company was first registered to do business in Idaho in November 2016, according to a document provided by Craig Fletcher. The Fletchers filed paperwork to dissolve the company in Idaho in March 2019, citing "medical problems."
Access Life’s Adventures was registered to do business in Alaska on June 4, 2018. The Statesman could find no record of business registration in Hawaii or Oregon. Neither the company nor the Fletchers are licensed fishing guides in Oregon or Idaho.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s license and registration manager told the Statesman that neither Access Life’s Adventures nor the Fletchers are registered to lead fishing trips in Alaska, and that the company would have to be registered in order to operate fishing trips legally.
Fletcher told the Statesman that he believes the company didn't need to register, because it simply sold trips that were led by independent contractors.
"I've done that for years, and they've never had any issues," he said. "Fish and Game doesn't understand the situation."
Fletcher has operated similar businesses in the past. Public records show that he started at least two other fishing businesses in Alaska -- Alaska River Sports in 2007 and Crazy Coho River Adventures in 2009. He also started a construction business in Alaska in 2005 and an investment company in 2006.
Customer recounts disaster trip, Fletcher says it was fun
The Statesman reached a former customer who went on a guided fishing trip with Alaska River Sports in 2008 and later sued over it.
"My wife went to a silent auction (at an elementary school) and won a fishing trip," said Chuck Boitnott, who lives in Alaska.
Boitnott's wife gave him the trip as a birthday gift, he said, and he chose to add her on as a guest. They were joined on the trip by another customer, who later joined in the lawsuit, and his wife.
Boitnott says they were expecting a helicopter ride, cabin camping and chef-cooked meals. That's not what they got, he said. He provided the Statesman with copies of emails with Craig Fletcher, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer, the guide who'd been hired for their trip, and others.
Boitnott and the emails described taking a boat to a campsite where they found a broken-down fishing boat, tents to sleep in, nobody cooking their food, and black bears in sight.
To eat, Boitnott and the emails say there was junk food and Gatorade, rice cereal for babies, "an open can of country sausage" and crackers. Boitnott says he and his wife have diabetes, so they were worried about getting enough food to eat.
After two days and failed efforts to fix the boat, Boitnott says he remembers thinking, "This is a huge problem."
He asked the guide to tell Fletcher to send someone to pick them up, and a boat eventually arrived to tow them back into town. They stayed in a hotel and ate in a restaurant that night.
Boitnott says Fletcher wrote a check to the towing boat's captain, but the captain later told Boitnott the check bounced.
"I have not received a penny from him," Boitnott said. He and the other customer are the people whose court judgment likely expired in June, after 10 years.
It turns out that Fletcher did not have the required permit to lead a camping or fishing trip on national forest land. The U.S. Forest Service cited him for it. Fletcher told the Statesman that was a misunderstanding, and that other businesses also got in trouble for unintentionally breaking the rules.
Fletcher later threatened to sue the men for disparaging his company, according to emails Boitnott provided to the Statesman.
"With the mess that you have aided I have had no choice but to refer this to legal (counsel)," he wrote in the July 2008 emails. "The damages that (you) have done to me, my family, my business, and my employees are sure to exceed the amount you are claiming against Alaska River Sports, Inc."
Fletcher told the Statesman that Boitnott's recollection is wrong -- that he and the rest of the group caught fish and had a great time.
"They wanted all their money back after they ate all their food, after they enjoyed their trip," Fletcher said.
‘Injustice to our business and family’
Fletcher said in emails to the Statesman in July that he plans to sue some former customers "and (their) accomplices who have harassed and made a difficult situation worse."
He accused the Idaho attorney general of misdeeds and a conflict of interest. He suggested that the Fletchers plan to bring their own lawsuit against the AG.
He told the Statesman that he wants to issue refunds to people, but they must agree to a new set of terms and conditions, which they haven't done, he said.
He "took the high road" so far in dealing with disgruntled customers who want more money than they paid him for the trips, he said. (Several customers are seeking reimbursement for things such as airline ticket change fees and hotel costs.)
Asked whether the money for refunds is being held in an escrow or trust account, Fletcher said, "The money owed to folks is in a safe place and ready to be distributed when they agree to the new terms. The old terms they agreed to was no refunds for any reason. I am doing the right thing and just not allowing these folks to extort money."
The bad reviews on Yelp and social media, the complaints to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office and the lawsuits have done “injustice to our business and family,” Fletcher said.
In an interview, he told the Statesman that he has been guiding or operating guided-vacation businesses for years, has raised money for charities and has many happy customers.
“It’s a profession I’ve loved, and I can’t go back to it,” he said.