By Emily Russo Miller
A jury on Friday acquitted, in large part, a big game guide from Haines and three hunters from Canada of violating a federal conservation law.
The Canadian co-defendants were cleared on all counts of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal taking and trafficking of wildlife, in connection to two mountain goat hunts led by guide John Katzeek in Haines in 2010 and 2011.
“Thank God,” one of the defendants, Kenneth Cox, a 49-year-old businessman and an experienced hunter who has been featured on TV for his long-range marksmanship skills, told the Empire after the verdict was announced around noon.
Katzeek, who was facing the same charge in connection to those two goat hunts as well additional charges for allegedly smuggling Dall sheep horns into the U.S., was nearly completely exonerated. He was found not guilty on eight of nine felony counts of violating the Lacey Act; the one guilty conviction was for false labeling during the 2011 goat hunt.
“Eight out of nine not guilty is pretty good, and obviously there was some sloppy paperwork on Count 6,” Katzeek’s attorney, Tom Collins, said in reference to the verdicts during an interview. “I think Mr. Katzeek’s reputation has been exonerated.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, who has been presiding over the trial in federal court in Juneau for the past two and a half weeks, scheduled a sentencing hearing for Katzeek to take place in mid-June. Violating the Lacey Act is a federal offense that can fetch up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although it’s unlikely the 64-year-old Alaska Native elder will see any jail time given his age and the nature of the charge.
Prosecutors argued that the defendants lied about who shot the goats in the 2010 hunt, then covered it up by switching the goat tags and falsifying documents. They alleged 19-year-old Tyler Antal shot and killed one of the two mountain goats without having the proper registration and tag, and that his stepfather, Brian Hicken, covered it up by using his tag for the goat. Hicken then used Cox’s tag for the goat he killed while Cox never killed a goat, the government’s theory went.
The defendants vigorously disputed that account, which was coming from an assistant guide who was testifying under immunity. The defense said Hicken shot his own goat, as did Cox, and that Antal only shot at one of the goats when it was wounded and running away. The defense attorneys said there was nothing criminal about that since the goat would have suffered in the wilderness if it had not been put down.
Whereas the dispute in the 2010 hunt was over the identity of the shooters, the dispute in the 2011 hunt (which only two defendants participated in, Cox and Katzeek) was over unsalvaged meat. The two goats in that hunt were hunted legally but the hunters left their meat atop the mountain when an assistant guide fell down the mountain, broke his leg and the men decided to leave the meat behind to drop weight for the hike down. Katzeek later signed paperwork that had wrong information on it, such as the weight of the meat they salvaged.
After the verdict was read in court, the defendants expressed relief, hugged their lawyers and shook hands before arranging flights back to Alberta. The youngest, Antal, shed tears.
Still, it wasn’t a complete victory. The defendants were still reeling that they were investigated and charged in the first place.
“Shocked,” Cox said in an interview. “Shocked that all of this came down to what it did. I mean, it’s just ludicrous how you can have someone change your life for no reason.”
Katzeek echoed the sentiment.
“I’m not feeling real good because it should have never came to this,” he told the Empire.
Given that only four goats were at issue, two of which were hunted legally, the defense throughout trial argued the government was overzealous in targeting the defendants in a joint U.S.-Canadian wildlife enforcement investigation that failed to yield any serious allegations against them, such as illegally hunting bears on a guided trip. The cost of the investigation, dubbed “Operation Bruin” by law enforcement, and lengthy trial probably cost tax payers about $1 million, or more, the defense attorneys guessed.
“This case should not have been brought,” one of the defense attorneys, Michael Nash, said in an interview. “The allegations were almost entirely based on the testimony of (the assistant guide and cooperating government witness) Stuart DeWitt, who has testified as a government witness under immunity. His testimony is unreliable, and the rest of the case was based on a misstatement by Mr. Cox that was corrected the next day. This is not enough to justify the expenditure of resources that went in to this case.”
Lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki, however, maintained that the case was worthwhile since it involves the protection and stewardship of Alaska’ natural resources.
Skrocki noted that the evidence presented at trial supported the one guilty conviction that was reached in connection to Katzeek’s paperwork in 2011.
“I think the evidence certainly established that,” he told the Empire. “We of course thought the evidence established all the counts beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury elected not to agree with us on that, and we respect that.”
The jury deliberated two and a half days before announcing their verdicts.