By Adam Lynn
A Tacoma man described as “one of the largest illegal wildlife traffickers in Washington state history” was sentenced Friday to 30 days of community service and 60 days’ home detention for selling deer, elk and sturgeon in violation of state law.
Bona Bunphoath, 46, previously pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree unlawful trafficking in fish and wildlife.
Bunphoath was arrested in 2012 after investigators with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife learned he was illegally dealing in wild game and set up a sting to catch him, court records show.
Fish and Wildlife detective Todd Vandivert, now retired, wrote a letter to the court in November detailing his investigation of Bunphoath.
Vandivert said he and his partner, over the course of 19 months, bought 10 whole elk carcasses and three deer from Bunphoath and sold him one deer. The going price for an elk was $600, with deer going for $200-$250, court records show.
“Additionally, Mr. Bunphoath sold or coordinated the sale of 11 sturgeon,” Vandivert said in his letter. “As you can guess, we were not Mr. Bunphoath’s only customers, and as a matter of fact, he several times told us he had many customers for his illegal fish and wildlife and had no problem selling animals to others.”
Investigators believe many of the animals were harvested out of season by people in the Yakima area and sold to Bunphoath, who then resold them.
“I assure the court Mr. Bunphoath was fully aware of just how illegal the sale of deer and elk is in Washington,” Vandivert said. “I think it goes without saying that Mr. Bunphoath is one of the largest illegal wildlife traffickers in Washington state history (if not the single largest), and his activities have had a tremendous adverse impact to the wildlife populations of our state.”
Vandivert asked for the “most severe penalties possible.”
Bunphoath faced prison time under the original nine counts with which he was charged. But Pierce County prosecutors and defense attorney Michael Schwartz engineered a plea deal in which Bunphoath avoided a harsher sentence by agreeing to cooperate with authorities in their investigation of others.
Schwartz on Friday made a motion to seal that plea agreement, arguing that his client’s safety could be jeopardized if details of his deal with prosecutors were made public. Deputy prosecutor Patrick Hammond did not object.
The News Tribune did object, and Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Martin declined to seal the document, instead blacking out portions she deemed sensitive, including the names of those people Bunphoath identified as suppliers.
Hammond then recommended a sentence of nine months in jail for Bunphoath, calling his crimes “pretty substantial.” The standard range was nine to 12 months in jail.
Schwartz argued for first-time offender status for his client, arguing that Bunphoath had no previous felony record, was married and was employed. Granting first-time offender status would allow Martin to sentence Bunphoath to below the standard range.
Schwartz said his client, a native Cambodian who immigrated to the United States and is now a naturalized citizen, did not know what he was doing was wrong. It is not uncommon in Cambodian culture for families to feed themselves or others with wild game, Schwartz said.
He asked for 30 days in jail converted to 240 hours of community service.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t know any better,” Bunphoath then told Martin.
The judge, citing Bunphoath’s “spirit of cooperation” in working with authorities and “the cultural issue at play,” agreed to sentence Bunphoath as a first-time offender but gave him 90 days instead of 30.
She converted 30 days to community service but ruled Bunphoath could serve the remaining 60 days on electronic home monitoring.