Crime & Justice

'Alaskan Bush People' criminal case delayed as lawyers decide what's next

The criminal case against members of the Brown family who star in the popular reality show "Alaskan Bush People" resumed Thursday, only to end about 10 minutes later after attorneys said they need more time to decide what to do next in a legal battle that has stretched on for more than a year.

"The parties are in discussion about a resolution of the case that might fit within the parameters that the court outlined in our last conversation. I think it's going to take a little more work," said James McGowan, attorney for Billy Brown, the family patriarch, who had his 63rd birthday Thursday.

The case against Billy Brown, his wife Amora "Ami" Brown and four of their adult children has grown complicated after Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg not only rejected a proposed plea deal last month, saying that lying on Permanent Fund dividend applications deserves jail time, but also dismissed felony charges against the Brown parents.

So when the status hearing started Thursday, many of the 60 charges originally filed against the Browns had already been thrown out because of technical problems with the prosecution's case. Billy Brown still faced one misdemeanor charge of unsworn falsification, Ami Brown faced no charges and their four sons, together, faced more than 25 charges of unsworn falsification and theft.

The four Brown brothers -- Joshua "Bam Bam" Brown, 31; Solomon "Bear" Brown, 28; Gabriel "Gabe" Brown, 25, and Noah Brown, 23 -- are trying to get their indictments dismissed too but a judge had not yet made a decision.

The Browns will return to court on Dec. 22, Pallenberg said.

Before Thursday's hearing, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kelley of the state's Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals said the court case could go several different ways. Prosecutors can refile felony charges against the Browns. They could also choose to file misdemeanor charges or not file any new charges.


"All I can say is we have options," Kelley said.

The Browns could also enter into another plea deal. In the previous proposed plea deal, Billy Brown and Joshua Brown agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count each of second-degree unsworn falsification, and in exchange prosecutors would have dismissed charges against the rest of the family members.

But Pallenberg said the proposed probation, community services and fines included in the deal weren't enough. He said 30 days in jail would have been appropriate for the crime.

Last October, the Brown parents and the four brothers were charged 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. Most Alaska residents can get a dividend -- paid for from a pool of invested oil revenue -- if they have lived in the state for at least one calendar year. Alaskans can leave the state for up to 180 days and still get the check.

Court documents plot scattered locations of Brown family

Where exactly the Browns lived, if not in Alaska, remains largely up to the interpretation of numerous dates. Court documents continue to plot a spotty timeline of their locations using travel records, IP addresses and witness statements.

On Thursday, the Browns called in to the Juneau hearing but did not identify their locations. In November, the family -- marketed by Discovery Channel as "born and raised wild" -- had called in to the hearing from Seattle. They did not say why.

According to Pallenberg's order granting the dismissal of Billy and Ami Brown's indictments, the prosecution said the entire family left Alaska on a ferry on Oct. 21, 2009. One man testified that the family stayed on his Texas property for several months in 2011 and traveled to neighboring states.

"He did say that they may have gone back to Alaska at some point during that period," the order said.

An investigator testified that most of the Browns' 2011 dividend applications were filed from an IP address in Texas, except for Matthew Brown's application, which came from California. The next year, the applications were filed from an IP address in Arkansas. The 2013 applications came from an IP address in Wasilla.

Travel records documented movement in and out of Alaska in 2012. Alaska Airlines records showed that Billy Brown and three of his sons flew from Denver to Anchorage on July 25, 2012, and returned to Denver less than two weeks later.

An investigator said the entire family traveled back to Alaska from Washington on Aug. 24, 2012. Then the entire family flew from Ketchikan to Anchorage on Aug. 29, 2012.

A welfare case for the family in Alaska that closed in 2009 was reopened in November 2012, the order said.

"It is certainly true that the grand jury was asked to make inferences from this evidence," the order said. "There was no witness who testified to each of the defendants' whereabouts on each relevant day. The state's case is largely based on circumstantial evidence."

An Alaska Wildlife Trooper interviewed the Brown family at Salt Lake Bay near Hoonah on Sept. 24, 2014, according to Pallenberg's order. The trooper testified that the family admitted to traveling around the Lower 48 but insisted that they returned to Alaska within 90 days.

Attorneys for the Browns raised issue with the trooper's vague use of the term "they" and failing to attribute information to individual family members.

The trooper testified that the family said they lived "off the grid" in Southeast Alaska in 2010. "When they were out of state, 'they' said they had traveled in Texas, Colorado, Tennessee and other states, giving talks to Rotary clubs and working 'below-the-table,'" the order said.

All nine Browns were present for the interview, the trooper said. "He said about the conversation that 'basically, it wasn't, you know, at all custodial, or really controlled.'"


Charges dropped against Brown parents

Pallenberg essentially dismissed the indictments against Billy Brown and Ami Brown in the order filed in October.

Among his reasons, Pallenberg said that the prosecutor had inaccurately answered a juror's question about accountability.

He also said that the indictment had omitted language related to a charge of unsworn falsification. The incomplete language was read to the grand jury 31 times, the order said.

Kelley, the assistant attorney general, said it's not uncommon for a judge to dismiss indictments based on technical errors. But in the case of the Browns, she said, "None of those are things we can't fix."

Despite questions about the Browns' residency and lifestyle, "Alaskan Bush People" remains wildly popular.

Discovery Channel reported that nearly 5 million people tuned into the season three premiere on Nov. 5. The episode depicted the family living in a makeshift camp outside Hoonah.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.