AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Alaska Native ivory sellers facing federal charges say they were swindled

Alex DeMarban
Loren Holmes photo

With the former president of the Chitina Native Corp., Loretta Sternbach, and boyfriend Jesse Leboeuf now in prison for trafficking in Alaska polar bear hides and walrus ivory, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska announced it's dropping the hammer on 10 residents of St. Lawrence Island who did business with the couple.

Alaska Native hunters caught up in the net and facing citations for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act say they were deceived by the couple.

RELATED: Read Bizarre Alaska wildlife raid nets Victorian era stolen art

"I didn't know he was a bad guy. We all didn't know," David Akeya said of Lebouef.

Lebouef told carvers and hunters in Savoonga, a village of 700 on the Bering Sea island, that he could legally buy the marine mammal parts because Sternbach is an Alaska Native, said Akeya, 37.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows Alaska Natives to hunt walrus and polar bear. They can sell raw parts, such as bear hides or unworked ivory, to other Natives, such as Sternbach. But they can't sell them to non-Natives such as Lebouef. Court documents in the case against Lebouef and Sternbach said he bought the parts even when she wasn't on the island.  

In addition to Akeya, those set to receive citations are Ronnie Toolie, Ronald Kingeekuk, Lawrence Kingeekuk, Calvin Akeya, Patrick Newhall, Richmond Toolie, Floyd Kingeekuk, Carl Pelowook, and William Parks, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney in Alaska.

Exactly where each of the Savoonga men went wrong, and to what extent, was not detailed in the press release. Officials with the U.S. attorney's office were not available for comment Friday afternoon. Bruce Woods, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said the case is still under investigation and additional charges may be brought.

The citations are criminal, he said. Woods did not know the potential fines each person faced. Penalties may vary by individual, depending in part on the alleged wrongdoing. As of Friday afternoon, the citations had not all been issued.

The months-long investigation into the illegal buying ended with the arrest of Lebouef and Sternbach last spring. Authorities seized about 1,000 pounds of walrus ivory, including more than 150 tusks, two polar bear hides, hundreds of other wildlife parts and firearms, including fully automatic weapons.

Lebouef and Sternbach have pled guilty to multiple violations of the Lacey Act for selling the illegally obtained animal parts, and for federal weapons violations. In addition to buying with cash, the couple sometimes traded snowmachines and drugs and, without having a license, cigarettes and guns as well.  

St. Lawrence Island is an 1,800-square-mile chunk of land 750 miles west of Anchorage. It has little in the way of an economy, so many people have turned to harvesting walrus tusks and carving or scrimshawing them into artwork.

The practice provides critical cash to buy bullets, gas, whale bombs and other items for hunting seals and walrus and harpooning bowheads. It's so important that Akeya and others travel some 60 miles northeast of Savoonga to a group of islands where they don diving gear to recover fossilized ivory from the seafloor.

Such ivory is dark, and Lebouef didn't that. He wanted fresh white ivory from recently dead walrus. Akeya said he sold Lebouef a female walrus head for mounting for $500 after a carcass washed up near Akeya's hunting camp along the beach.

Akeya, who delivers meals to elders in the tribe, said on Friday that he hadn't received any citation.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked earnestly.  

Ronald Kingeekuk, 21, was also surprised to hear he'd be getting a citation. He said he sold a single tusk to Lebouef for $400, and used the money to buy gas and grub last spring for his whaling crew.

"I thought he had a permit (to buy the ivory) the whole time," said Kingeekuk.  

Akeya said he and others might fight the citations by hiring an attorney, if they can find one. He added that everyone had learned to be more careful about who they sell to. As for himself, he said he's learned a valuable lesson: "Do not trust the white man."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com. Dispatch reporters Jill Burke and Craig Medred contributed to this story.