Down $150,000 in legal fees and looking to waste a couple weeks in a courtroom in Glennallen with his pocketbook hit daily to the tune of thousands of dollars, Jimmy West in August decided it was time to fold his hand in an unwanted wager with Alaska law enforcement.
The Anchorage businessman cut a deal, took a plea and ended what was shaping up as one of the state's more interesting trials, pitting the stars of one Alaska reality TV show, "Alaska State Troopers," against the star of another, "Wild West Alaska."
The state, of course, insisted that the prosecution of West had nothing to do with competition between reality shows. But it does appear more than a little odd that a 2011 investigation into West's hunting practices went absolutely nowhere until after "Wild West Alaska" premiered in 2013.
If you spent hours at the clerk's counter in the quiet courthouse in the Ahtna regional Alaska Native corporation office along the Richardson Highway 180 miles east of Anchorage reading through the nearly 3-inch-thick bundle of documents filed by the warring lawyers, it was hard to avoid your gut telling you this case might be why the troopers' bosses finally decided to pull the plug on "Alaska State Troopers," the so-called "reality" TV show that generally made Alaskans look like slobs and morons after its five-year run.
No matter how you read those documents, it looked like Brent Cole, West's attorney, nailed it when he wrote in one legal brief: "There can be little doubt that the state is selectively prosecuting Mr. West. The extent to which he is being targeted is unknown."
None of the West charges involved any serious poaching. They don't even hint at serious poaching, and West said he has no idea why his hunting activities got put under such a microscope. Until all this happened, state court records indicate that speeding once in 2007 was the worst crime of which he was ever found guilty.
His biggest Alaska offense might be starring in one of the state's many phonied-up "reality" shows, but that's not a crime. If it were, a lot of folks, including a few Alaska State Troopers, might be going to jail for playing loose with the truth. Everyone in Alaska these days seems to want to be a TV or Internet star, but West's experience would indicate involvement with the media isn't always such a good thing.
"I'm a celebrity," he said last week. "It means you've got a target on your back."
As hard as it is to feel sorry for a minor-league celebrity, especially one involved in something as fundamentally sleazy as Alaska reality TV, it's even harder to ignore what happens in this country these days when the authorities decide they want to get someone. And troopers admit they targeted West, albeit it for reasons other than his TV show.
Now, consider these two facts:
• The case against West began with accusations he falsified records regarding bear hides, which must by law be sealed by the state. Court documents show that accusation was wholly unfounded. The bear records in question were altered by a well-meaning technician at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. West reported the bears killed in Alaska Game Management Unit 11 and referenced a Richardson Highway milepost for a more specific location as to the hunt area. West was hunting Game Management Unit 11 just across the Copper River from that milepost. But the Richardson Highway itself is in GMU 13, the river being the boundary between the two units. A state employee thought West had made a mistake in reporting the bears killed in GMU 11 and changed the forms to GMU 13. It would somehow take troopers a couple years to figure that out.
• Most of the so-called hunting charges against West revolve around a claim he trespassed on property owned by Ahtna Inc., the Native corporation headquartered in Glennallen. Ahtna manages more than 1.5 million acres of land in Alaska. Ahtna and West were once partners in the bear-killing business, or what Ahtna calls its "predator-control" program, even though the corporation has no authority to do predator control. The wildlife on Ahtna's land, like the wildlife on all private land in Alaska, belongs to the state, and the authority to order predator control rests solely with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
All Ahtna can do is issue permits to hunt bears or other predators on its land in accordance with state regulations. West had an Ahtna permit to do that before he and the corporation had a falling out, and his permit was yanked. What happened next is the sort of thing usually resolved in civil -- not criminal -- court.
As trooper Sgt. Brent Johnson admitted under oath when asked about what was going on in the West case, "It, it kind of is (a trespass issue). And typically, in Alaska we don't -- we don't get involved in trespass at all."
His bosses demonstrated their position on trespass clearly when Alaska Wildlife Trooper John Cyr and a partner were caught trapping on a 160-acre parcel of private property near Palmer in the fall of 2013. That land was posted against trespass, but no charges were filed against either man because the land wasn't posted properly, troopers said.
Alaska criminal law makes it legal for trappers or hunters to access "unimproved and apparently unused land" unless the land is marked with 144-square-inch signs saying who can grant access. Signs must be posted at each access point. There weren't enough signs of the right size for troopers to take action against Cyr.
So the Palmer landowner went into civil court to take action against Cyr. That is not what happened in the West case, though the Ahtna lands in question weren't posted at all. But Trooper Johnson, in an interview with Alaska Dispatch News, said there is a difference between West and other Alaskans that made this a special case.
"Because it was a guide. Guides are held to a different standard. It was only because he was a guide that this was carried forward. ... It has been characterized that we were going after him," Johnson said before disputing characterizations that troopers were going after West.
Once Ahtna notified troopers that it had a problem with a guide in trespass, Johnson said, troopers felt compelled to act.
According to court records, West was officially told to get off Ahtna lands in a letter hand-delivered May 26, 2011. On the very same day, by some strange coincidence, court records also show that Alaska Wildlife Trooper Jon Simeon was in his boat headed down the Copper River to document West's bear-baiting stations. Simeon took photos of the stations on Ahtna land that day. Those photos would later be used as evidence of trespassing.
In his official summary of the May 26 trip, Simeon wrote that he learned the next day that West had received a letter from Ahtna informing him that "he had until 05/25/11 to remove any bait stations which may have been placed on Ahtna lands."
West says he moved his bait stations off Ahtna land on May 28 -- two days after being told to do so and two days before sending the corporation a letter notifying it of the move and apologizing for offending anyone at an earlier May meeting with corporation officials that sparked the whole trespass dispute. West's bait stations, he contends, were relocated to state land below the "ordinary high water" mark of the Copper River, a glacial stream on which the water level goes up and down like a yo-yo.
Ordinary high water is an issue unto itself in Alaska. The Alaska Statehood Act granted the state title to the beds of all the state's navigable streams and rivers. The federal government has yet to turn all these lands over to the state. Given the land ownership issue, the state has steadfastly since statehood fought for the most liberal interpretation of ordinary high water in order to maintain state ownership of land in and along streams and rivers.
Prosecutors in the West case, however, tried to argue for the most conservative interpretation of ordinary high water. But there was an even bigger problem with their case. The photos the state used to try to show West's bait station were above the ordinary high water mark were the photos taken by Simeon on May 26 -- the day West was first officially informed he was in trespass and two days before West reported moving his bait stations.
When troopers flew to Kentucky and South Dakota to interview witnesses in the case -- hunters who'd been at the bait sites with West after May 28, 2011 -- the witnesses told them the bait stations in the photos were not the ones they hunted over.
It didn't matter. A trooper investigation charged on.
It would take two years for troopers to discover the supposed falsification issue was a paperwork error on the part of a state employee, and they would never let go of the trespass issue despite its thin underpinnings. To this day, Johnson is of the belief that West's bear-baiting stations were above the ordinary high water line and thus illegally on Ahtna land, even though it takes a qualified surveyor to actually make an assessment of where to place the high water mark.
Troopers were just doing their job in pursuing the falsification claim, Johnson said, "though it wasn't discovered until very near the end of the investigation."
That was in the fall of 2013, not long before prosecutors busted West on what they categorized as 17 counts of illegal hunting. They suggested he'd done all sorts of dirty deeds, including illegally guiding a hunt in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Thirteen of the 17 counts, however, didn't involve hunting at all. They involved West's trespass, which went back to West's dispute with Ahtna.
West eventually pleaded guilty to charges of taking game while guiding a client in 2011, aiding a client in taking a moose in 2009, and counts of failing to remove bear-baiting stations in 2010 and 2011. The latter crimes involved leaving some empty barrels chained along the Copper River where West planned to use them the next hunting season. This happens almost everywhere in the state that people hunt bears over bait. It is rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
The charge of taking game while guiding involves West shooting a black bear that reportedly ran at him while on a hunt. It is legal for a guide to shoot a bear if the animal is wounded or the guide is in serious danger. It's hard to argue a charging black bear presents a serious danger to a grown man, however. Plenty of those bears have been beaten back with a stick.
The 2009 charge of aiding a client in taking a moose is far more complicated and involves West helping out a former client in 2009. West was, at the time, on his own hunt in the Wrangell preserve. He had a so-called "proxy" permit (a whole other strange Alaska issue) to bag a moose for Donna Ewan of Gulkana, whose 72-year-old husband, Harding Frank Ewan, a local Native elder, was dying. The Ewans wanted moose meat, and Donna signed her proxy hunting permit over to West.
On the return from that hunt, West used his airplane to help fly out the moose meat of a former client who'd been on his own moose hunt in the area. West said he did it because he felt guilty about failing to find the client a grizzly bear on a previous hunt. West did not get paid for hauling the moose meat, but he admits now it was a mistake because it looks bad for someone in the guiding business. It looks, in other words, like he could have somehow received some form of compensation, which is illegal even if no cash changes hands.
All of these charges arose, Johnson said, because "anytime we enter into an investigation we plan to see it through to the end."
West's attorney Cole, a former state prosecutor, has a whole different take on that. As he sees it, troopers were either out to get his client from the start or incompetent. As he noted in a letter to the state, which is now part of that that thick court file in Glennallen, "Our investigation has revealed significant errors, untruths and lies perpetuated by Ahtna Corporation and compounded by the trooper's investigation or lack thereof. "
West gets Cessna back
West is lucky he had the money to finance an aggressive defense, thus he walked away from court relatively unscathed, except for the damage done to his reputation.
"Troopers talked to every client that has been with me for the past 10 years, and told them all I'd been falsifying documents," he said last week. No one from the state will be going back to tell all those people the story was wrong, that the falsification of documents was really due to a slight error made by someone deep in the bowels of state bureaucracy. It doesn't work that way.
Still, in some regard, West got off easy. In exchange for his pleading guilty to those four misdemeanors, he paid only $8,000 in fines and agreed to perform a couple weeks of community service for the state. His legal team would have billed him more than $8,000 for just the first few days of trial.
But there is an even bigger significance to that $8,000 number. By law in Alaska, licensed big-game guides who receive fines of more than $2,000 automatically lose their licenses for two years. Under the agreement with prosecutors, West agreed to fines of $2,000 on each of the four misdemeanor counts, meaning he keeps his guide license.
And he gets back the Cessna 185 single-engine airplane the state seized almost a year ago and has held ever since. The plane is valued at about $150,000.
As for the community service, well, West joked about that with some dark humor when he sat for an interview along Lake Hood not far from the hangar where the state was still holding his airplane. His lips curled up below his white mustache and his eyes sparked just a bit.
Animals Planet producers, he said, are already talking about a Wild West Alaska segment with him cleaning toilets in Glennallen. They think it has comedic potential.
West's attorney Cole, however, sees nothing funny in any of this. The system, Cole maintains, is broken.
State wildlife troopers who used to pursue people abusing the resource now seemed tied up chasing paperwork errors and other nonsense, he said. There was no resource abuse in the West case.
West wasn't using his airplane to hunt big game. He killed a moose for which there was a permit, and shot what could have been charging black bear in an area where both the state and Ahtna are actively encouraging people to shoot more black bears. He wasn't laying waste to the countryside.
The bear bait barrels stashed in the woods, where most people would never see them, might qualify as litter, but they pale against the mess not far downstream on the Copper River. The stretch of river used by Chitina-area salmon dipnetters looks in many places like a dump. Nothing is ever done about it.
Maybe that little problem is just not high profile enough. No one would notice a bunch of tickets for littering written there. The bust of a reality TV star? Well, that attracts some headlines.
A higher standard
"It does send a message to the guiding community that, as we frequently state, big game guides are held to a higher standard in what can be a very lucrative business," trooper Johnson told Alaska Dispatch News immediately after the plea agreement was announced.
Cole said he doesn't mind the higher standard for guides. What bothers him is the lying and cheating on the part of authorities to try to catch those guides. He noted troopers hid remote cameras at West's bear-baiting sites without bothering to obtain warrants and then, after they found the date-stamps on the cameras didn't match the dates they wanted, tampered with evidence.
Cole and his assistant discovered this by accident before dragging the truth out of prosecutors.
As part of the so-called discovery process, court documents noted, Cole was given "paper copies of pictures allegedly taken in 2012 by a motion-detecting trail camera.... At first glance, it is not apparent that any information on those copies of pictures has been blacked out. However, upon closer inspection, it is clear a black marker was used to cover the photo's date stamp."
To figure out what was going on, Cole had to demand the state turn over the actual photos. What he discovered was that photos said to have been taken on May 29, 2012 were date stamped May 29, 2011. Cole and West said they still aren't sure when the photos were taken.
"None of the trooper reports submitted in this case note that there was a problem with the date stamp on the pictures, nor do the reports identify the fact that an erroneous date is stamped in the pictures," Cole wrote in a motion asking the state be compelled to produce the original photos. "The state's attorney explained that the lead investigator, Investigator Johnson, could not explain how these (date stamps) came to be placed on the photographs delivered to counsel. On the second occasion, while not admitting that he blacked out the dates, Investigator Johnson now seems to indicate that he might have done that after speaking with an attorney because the date stamp is wrong on the photos."
The whole thing is troubling, Cole said.
"I'd be disbarred for doing that," he said. "There's a lot of irregularities going on."
Indeed there are, and the most troubling may be the double standard that seems to come into play when troopers break the law. One would expect that troopers, as societal role models and people educated in the law, would be held to a slightly higher standard than the average Alaska citizen.
That's clearly not the case. As the Cyr case and others have illustrated, the opposite seems to be true. Remember Trooper Mike Wooten? Former Gov. Sarah Palin got in a lot of hot water for going after the job of her former brother-in-law because he illegally shot a moose.
She had it out for him after he divorced her sister, though the Palin clan didn't seem too upset about the illegal hunt before the divorce. Wooten apparently never tried that hard to hide the fact he illegally shot a moose on his wife's hunting permit. Records indicate Palin's father knew all about the illegal hunt and instead of reporting it, told Wooten to quit talking about it.
In retrospect, one can't help but wonder how many of Wooten's co-workers at the troopers must have known. Nobody, however, targeted him. And targeting, Cole said, is the central issue in the West case. Once somebody gets targeted, nobody bothers to ask why, or call off the dogs when they find there's no fire beneath the smoke.
"It gets back to the theory," Cole said. "They had a theory (West) was covering up hunts" by falsifying records.
And they were somehow, some way, going to catch him because, as troopers say, "it's the law."
Had West been a man of limited means, there's no telling how much trouble he'd be in today. There's no doubt here that he bought himself a plea by paying a lot of money to lawyers. He could have lost his guide license for up to five years or gone to jail for as many as two. The state clearly wanted to put him out of business for reasons hard to determine.
Asked point-blank if there were any deep, dark secrets about West's hunting practices behind this investigation, Investigator Johnson said no. Everything is in the files, he said. But the files indicate this was a case about not much. Cole in May of this year suggested his client would likely be willing to settle for a handful of littering tickets and a plea on a charge he improperly reported the shooting of a black bear.
State prosecutors were having none of that. As late as the start of August, the best deal they were willing to offer was guilty pleas on six counts, $12,000 in fines, and a four-year-suspension of West's guiding license -- or a plea on seven counts, $19,500 in fines, and a two-year suspension. They didn't balk until the day the trial started. They seemed particularly uncomfortable at the idea Cole might try to shine some light into the dark corners of how the process works.
There were rumors Animal Planet was going to try to get a camera into court to turn the trial into an episode of "Wild West Alaska." Fearing that -- "the defendant's television show may wish to film the trial," state attorneys wrote; the state filed a motion aimed at keeping the media out of the courtroom. Cole called that move unprecedented. The state countered that it only wanted to keep out the "not news media," which in the age of Internet reporting opens a can of worms even bigger than the issue of ordinary high water on the Copper River.
The judge in the case rejected the request. Cole and West were in Glennallen for what was to have been the start of a two-week trial when the state finally balked and offered the slap-on-the-wrist plea deal West couldn't realistically turn down. Given the hours upon hours state attorneys had spent writing court briefs by then, the cost of flying troopers to South Dakota and Kentucky to interview witnesses in the case, the cost of serving search warrants at a film production company in Tennessee, one can only guess at the tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of dollars the state spent trying to make a case that in the end involved four relatively petty misdemeanors.
This is the way the game is played. Cross your fingers you never get invited to participate.
Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.