[The patriarch of the Brown family and one of his sons, who star in the wildly popular reality TV show "Alaskan Bush People," were each sentenced Monday to 30 days in jail for lying on Permanent Fund dividend applications.
Billy Brown, the 63-year-old father, and his 31-year-old son, Joshua "Bam Bam" Brown, each pleaded guilty Monday to one misdemeanor count of second-degree unsworn falsification as part of a plea deal in a criminal case that has called into question just how long the cast of Discovery Channel's "Alaskan Bush People" really lived in Alaska.
In return for their guilty pleas, Billy Brown must return $7,956 in improperly obtained dividends and pay a $10,000 fine. Joshua Brown must pay back $1,174 in dividends and pay a $2,000 fine. They both must complete 40 hours of community service. They can never apply for the dividend again, and by April 15, they must report to jail, said Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg.
However, Pallenberg mentioned alternatives to jail like halfway houses or electronic monitoring. Officials with the state's Department of Corrections will have to decide how to best carry out the Browns' sentences, Pallenberg said.
The two guilty pleas from the Browns also meant the state would drop all charges against the other family members involved in the case. Originally, state prosecutors had charged Billy Brown, his wife Amora "Ami" Brown and four of their seven children with a total of 60 counts of first-degree unsworn falsification and first- and second-degree theft linked to dividend applications submitted from 2010 to 2013.
While attorneys never explicitly said where the family lived during that time, court documents filed in the case established a spotty timeline that put the Browns on a ferry leaving Alaska in October 2009. They lived in Texas for several months in 2011. In July 2012, Billy Brown and three of his sons flew from Denver to Anchorage, and returned to Denver less than two weeks later.
Billy Brown's attorney, James McGowan, has said the family left Alaska to sell a book Brown had written about his childhood and later surviving the Alaska wilderness.
According to a court order, an investigator testified that most of the Browns' 2011 dividend applications were filed electronically from an Internet address in Texas, except for Matthew Brown's application, which came from California. The next year, the applications were filed from an Internet address in Arkansas. The 2013 applications came from an Internet address in Wasilla.
On Monday, Billy Brown said he was calling into the court hearing from San Juan Capistrano, California. He said he couldn't attend the hearing in person because of health problems. The other five members of the family did not say where they were calling from.
McGowan argued against jail time in the case, highlighting Billy Brown's complicated health problems with his heart and liver. He said Brown had a seizure three or four years ago that put him in a coma. Now he has about three seizures a week.
"They've actually changed what the show is all about because he can't stay in the Bush anymore because he needs to be near medical attention," McGowan said. "So the Brown adventure is moving to an urban setting because he needs to be around doctors. So it's the real deal, judge."
A video posted this month on Discovery Channel's website shows the family leaving Alaska for Seattle so Billy Brown could see a health specialist. On the show, the Brown family reportedly lived in the woods outside Hoonah, in Southeast Alaska.
Discovery Channel did not respond to request for comment on Monday's hearing.
Kirsten Swanson, an attorney for the four Brown sons, said Joshua Brown felt "tremendous guilt" about the crimes and was very concerned for his father's health. She said he offered to do the jail time for Billy Brown.
"And I explained to him that's not the offer we worked out," she said.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kelley of the state's Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals said that the plea agreement made the Permanent Fund dividend whole again. Even though their cases will be dismissed, Ami Brown, 52; Solomon Brown, 28; Gabriel Brown, 26; and Noah Brown, 23, had to pay back their dividends, too.
Still, Pallenberg said that deterring other people from committing similar crimes required imposing jail time. He had rejected an earlier plea deal for the Brown family that had all jail time suspended. On Monday, he gave Billy and Joshua Brown 180 days in jail, with 150 days suspended.
"This is a theft from every Alaskan," Pallenberg said. "It harms everybody in the state."
Billy and Joshua Brown both offered brief statements to the judge Monday. Joshua Brown said he had learned a lot and regretted the circumstances. Billy Brown apologized "for all of this."
"I can assure you that you will never see me in any judicial system whatsoever as long as I live," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing