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Bizarre Alaska wildlife raid nets Victorian era stolen art

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy Department of Justice

Exactly where or when the life of Loretta Sternbach took a turn toward the dark side no one is sure now.

The daughter of a true Alaska war hero and a one-time "Alaska Native Elder of the Year," she started early and well down the trail from a rural, subsistence-oriented Alaska to success in the so-different world of America today. There was college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; the position as president of the Chitina Native Corp., a small village business formed after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; and then comptroller for Ahtna Inc., a $243-million regional Native corporation with more than 460 employees. 

And today she is in a federal prison, starting a three and a half year sentence after pleading guilty to what some might consider relatively petty crimes.

She tried to help broker the sale of walrus ivory and polar bear hides for Alaska Native hunters from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The Native hunters there can legally hunt bears. They can also legally hunt walrus and take the ivory. The Marine Mammal Protection Act exempted Alaska Natives from what is otherwise an almost total ban on the hunting of marine mammals. But Native hunters cannot legally sell the hides or ivory they obtain to non-Natives.

Enter 52-year-old Sternbach, the daughter of an Eskimo man from the Bering Sea coast and an Athabascan woman from the Copper River basin, and long-time companion Jesse Leboeuf, 47. They tried to maneuver around the Marine Mammal Protection Act to make a little money for everyone. It was a sketchy proposition to begin with and got worse when Lebouef began bartering for ivory, as well as buying it. He traded cigarettes, snowmachines, ammunition, firearms, marijuana and more, according to federal authorities. Trafficking in drugs is obviously illegal, and in America you can only traffic in guns and ammunition if you have a license.

Leboeuf had no license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And this was just the beginning of his problems.

Hillbilly Alaska

An investigation into his activities and an eventual search of the couple's rural Alaska home led to automatic weapons and firearms silencers, which are only legal if registered and permitted; and -- perhaps most surprising -- Victorian paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars that had been stolen years ago from a Connecticut woman. And Leboeuf, according to federal authorities, turned out to be a convicted felon. He’d been found guilty of theft in Spokane, Wash., in 1982 before making his way north to Alaska.

Whether Sternbach knew the full details of his criminal past is not clear. Friends and acquaintances paint her as both a willing accomplice and the victim of a man she loved.

Lebouef, who was sent to prison for 9 years, is described by some as friendly and outgoing and by others as dangerous. Some describe him as both. A woman who once delivered groceries to the home Leboeuf shared with Sternbach for almost two decades said he one time pointed a gun in her face and demanded she get out of her car and identify herself. Her husband, she added, knew Leboeuf, and they got along fine.

A next-door neighbor said she and her husband started out with troubles with Leboeuf after moving in nearby, but ended up on friendly terms. Leboeuf, she said, once gave her a lot of costly beads to use for her home sewing business. She makes Native-style moccasins. And when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Sternbach offered to help care for him.

Neither Sternbach nor her long-time companion appear to have been sophisticated criminals. They used Sternbach’s Facebook page to advertise their trips to the village of Savoonga, a small Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island located in the Bering Sea not far from Russia, to buy and trade for ivory.

Their partner in crime, 50-year-old Richard Weshenfelder, used eBay to market walrus ivory. Weshenfelder, whose real job is as a cook at the Peanut Farm, a popular sports bar in Anchorage, got off easy at sentencing in federal court. For his part in the crime ring, he was given three years probation and banned from hunting or guiding during that time. "Weshenfelder,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska, "marketed the walrus tusks via the Internet and contacted potential buyers to purchase the walrus tusks. Leboeuf negotiated the unlawful sales of the walrus tusks.” Sternbach, for her part as an Alaska Native, signed affidavits designed to make the ivory look legal for sale.

In the news release, authorities portrayed Lebouef as a dangerous criminal at the head of a three-person crime ring:

On April 26, 2011, a search warrant was executed at Leboeuf and Sternbach’s home in Glennallen. Just prior to his arrest and the execution of the search warrant, Leboeuf exited his residence and fired a shot,” said the indictment announcing the trio’s arrest. "At arrest, Leboeuf was wearing a .22 caliber belt buckle firearm. Leboeuf and Sternbach had numerous firearms in their house, including a machine gun more than 30 marijuana plants, coca plants, stolen art, and hundreds of pounds of walrus ivory.

In an interview, a neighbor laughed at that report. Lebouf was always shooting off guns, she said. Plinking -- casual, recreational shooting -- appeared to be a normal form of entertainment around the Lebeouf-Sternbach home just off the Richardson Highway in what might most accurately be called “Hillbilly Alaska.”

Authorities have repeatedly described Lebouef and Sternbach as residents of Glennallen, a small collection of businesses, government offices and church organizations with no local government at the intersection of the Richardson and Glenn Highways. But in reality, the couple lived five miles south, in a place that is even less of an organized community -- Tazlina:

The village reportedly was a fishing camp of the Ahtna Indian tribes who historically moved up and down the Copper River and its tributaries,” according to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Regional Affairs. "Tazlina is Athabascan for ‘swift water.’ By 1900, a permanent village had been established on the north and south banks off the Tazlina River near its confluence with the Copper River. During the pipeline era, Tazlina developed around the old Copper Valley School, built to board students from all over the state. It closed in 1971, when local high schools were constructed in the remote areas of the state and boarding schools were discontinued.

The state claims Tazlina is home to 307 residents these days, but it is hard to tell by looking. There is no real community center. The Tazlina River Trading Post on a hill just north of the river is the most obvious business. Tazlina residents live scattered nearby along the practically named roads branching off the Richardson: "Old School Road,” "Trailer Court Road,” "DOT Access Road,” and "Pipeline Road.”

LeBoeuf and Sternbach lived in a house, its yard full of domestic rabbits back in the woods, along the Pipeline Road, which dead-ends a couple miles back from the highway at a section of the trans-Alaska pipeline -- the 800-mile conduit that carries crude from Alaska’s Arctic oil fields to the tanker-port town of Valdez, supplying some 13 percent of U.S. domestic oil production. From their homestead hacked out of the scraggly black spruce, one can almost feel the crude throbbing its way south through the pipe on the edge of nowhere. From the Leboeuf-Sternbach home, which Leboeuf built himself, America is a place far, far away.

And yet not so far at all, as it turns out.

Alaska hinterland to stolen art to Bernard Madoff

The arrests of LeBouef and Sternback, a couple of bumbling Internet bandits selling walrus ivory and polar bear hides of little interest to anyone but a few artists and a handful of collectors of such things, might have passed almost unnoticed to the world if not for what popped up as federal agents searched their house.

The discovery of valuable paintings stolen from an East Coast woman being found in a remote Alaska cabin made headlines in newspapers from Chicago to Long Island, N.Y. to Boston.

Suffice to say, the Leboeuf-Sternbach residence was not the place anyone expected to find pricey Victorian-era paintings, let alone valuable artworks with their own sad, strange back story.

In fact, when Leboeuf first mentioned to undercover federal agents that he had such art and was willing to sell, they apparently didn’t believe him. An unnamed source told the Anchorage Daily News that Leboeuf would "‘be doing what he does, sitting in his chair carving ivory, partaking in the fruits of what he grew upstairs (marijuana), and he liked to tell stories. ... Keep in mind, these stories are endless and go on and on in the haze of the smoke in his living room.” The report could not be independently verified and appears odd given the newspaper’s long-standing policy against allowing public officials to hide behind the anonymity of "unnamed sources." But it does mirror widespread public perceptions about the unlikely nature of Leboeuf as an art dealer -- legal or otherwise.

A relative of Sternbach’s from Chitina, who works for the Native council there, was surprised to learn Lebouef and Sternbach were the ones caught with paintings stolen from Nicolette Wernick, who lives in Connecticut. Anita Eskilida, Chitina’s village administrator, had heard paintings had been seized from a “Glennallen couple,” but she had not connected the alleged crime to Lebouef and Sternbach.

"That was them?” she asked. "Everything I’ve heard, I had a hard time believing.”

It is a strange story all around. Wernick’s part in the tale is especially sad.

Not long after her paintings were stolen, her husband died. A few years after that, she learned all the money he had invested with Bernard Madoff was gone. She would not say how much money was involved, but told NBC Connecticut it had all been lost to Madoff’s Ponzi con.

As a result, Wernick was forced to sell the rest of her art collection and her condominium and move in with a friend. She did, however, get an insurance settlement of about $400,000 on the stolen art. The insurance settlement raises questions now as to whom the art belongs -- the insurance company or Wernick. She contends the paintings were worth about twice what she collected as compensation.

The government has moved to seize the artwork. The paintings’ actual value is unclear. In the federal court affidavit of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Jeffrey Mihin, he claims the five art works are pegged at "a combined estimated value of $38,000 to $63,000.” Leboeuf valued them "at over $30 million,” according to court documents, but told undercover operatives he "would settle for selling all five paintings for $5 million."

Leboeuf, according to one federal court affidavit, "described to Agent #1 how Leboeuf’s ‘half-brother,’ later named as Mario Murphy, and some other ‘cousins’, stole the paintings from the Wernick Collection during a remodel project....” Lebouef said he paid Murphy $100,000 for the paintings and had them shipped to his home.

Three of the five paintings were later linked to a police report Wernick filed in Bloomfield, Conn., in 2005. There are as yet no reports of any charges being filed against any Mario Murphy. And Leboeuf is not the most credible of sources. Most who’ve spent some time around him say one could never believe more than about half of what he said. "I don’t even know if that (Jesse Leboeuf) is his real name,” Eskilida said.

As it turns out, he has an alias. Court documents note an "investigation revealed that Jesse Leboeuf is the same person as Wayne G. Christian." Alaska state court records show no history of a Christian, but they nicely track Leboeuf across the state.

He shows up for the first time in Ketchikan in 1987 where is busted for driving while intoxicated. He is arrested a year later in Kodiak for theft. He gives a Seward address at that time. He is in Valdez in 1988 when he is ticketed for misconduct involving a controlled substance, the usual charge for someone caught smoking marijuana in Alaska. By 1989, he is in Fairbanks, where he gets busted for disorderly conduct, among other things.

And it is there in Fairbanks he apparently met Sternbach, the daughter of William "Billy" Buck and Mildred Goodlataw. Buck, born in the far north coastal village of Shaktoolik, was a former member of the U.S. Army’s 1st Combat Intelligence Platoon. The group was known in Alaska during the war as Castner’s Cutthroats in recognition of Col. Lawrence Castner who organized the Alaska Scouts. Their job was to maintain surveillance on the Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands. Buck did more. He led the rescue of the crew of a downed B-18 bomber. When a memorial service was held after his death in August 2011, the Alaska Veterans Museum asked that he be remembered "as a great man and hero.”

Goodlataw was a native of Chitina along the Copper River and trained as a dental assistant, but she went on to assist the University of Alaska Fairbanks in compiling an "Ahtna Noun Dictionary,” direct a program designed to help Native students succeed in school, and serve on the Ahtna board of directors. The Alaska Federation of Natives eventually recognized her as an "Elder of the Year” for service to others.

Relatives say Sternbach grew up under strict supervision. They say she went a little wild after she left home, but she appears to have been a good influence on Lebouef. Shortly after the couple hooked up, state records indicate he went from getting arrested every year in Alaska to getting arrested only sporadically. Sternbach had a young son, William Buck, and had just gotten a divorce. She, Leboeuf and Sternbach became companions in Fairbanks, moved back to the Glennallen area, and eventually settled in Tazlina.

Harry Billum, a past Chitina corporation president, said he first met Leboeuf "in the ‘90s when they came to Chitina for fish. He seemed like a nice guy. That’s about it. I never knew about his history until I saw in the paper. He was a carpenter. He built cabins. He fooled me. I thought he was a hell of a guy.”

Lebouef was reportedly a pretty good carpenter, who occasionally stilled ended up in trouble, but none of it major. "He was just a really unpredictable type of person,” said Becky Schwanke, a Glennallen-based state wildlife biologist with good connections in the area. "He was always somebody (Alaska State Troopers) were watching. Any rural Alaska community has some shady individuals.”

Anyone who has caught even a brief few minutes of the reality show "Alaska State Troopers” should know exactly what she is talking about. There are a lot of folks with what might be called "issues” living just off the road in the fringe of the America’s last wilderness. Many of them are heavily armed. Usually they are less dangerous than they might appear, but sometimes they’re not. Not far to the east of Tazlina in the tiny, tourist-oriented community of McCarthy in the massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, an out-of-work computer programmer who’d move north from California decided to settle the score with some neighbors he didn’t like. Louis Hastings murdered six and wounded two.

Going to extremes

Leboeuf was a nice guy, said neighbor Meredith Weaver, when he wasn’t being the opposite. "He had some problems,” she said. She wondered if he wasn’t possibly bipolar.

"We had our ups and downs with our neighbors,” she said.

It started with Leboeuf telling her husband, Gene, to stay off the property on which Weaver’s husband had never set foot. It was pretty clear Leboeuf really didn’t like the idea of neighbors, but the Weavers -- good Christian folks -- worked at changing his mind.

"Over the years, we tried to mend our relationships,” said 76-year-old Meredith. Things got better. She was once invited over to his house. 

"He offered me some of their contraband,” she joked. A woman who came to Alaska when her husband was recruited for a job with the Glennallen-based Alaska Bible College, Meredith politely declined. Deboeuf showed her a beautiful seal skin. She suspected that as a non-Native he wasn’t supposed to have it, though if it had been Sternbach’s it would have been legal. Leboeuf showed her some of his art work.

"I know Jesse makes beautiful things,” Meredith said. "He does really nice things, scrimshaw things.”

Scrimshaw -- carvings made from walrus ivory or whale bones -- is now most commonly associated with Alaska Natives because they have the easiest access to marine mammal parts and have been carving bones and tusks for thousands of years. But this work was also common on the whaling ships that plied arctic waters in the 1800s. The origin of the word itself is unknown, but from its first use the meaning seems to have been tied, as one source puts it, to “crafts done to pass the time while at sea for a really, really long time.”

Leboeuf apparently spent a lot of time on his scrimshaw, his shooting and his rabbits. "There was constant shooting,” Meredith said, "and he loved rabbits. He had hundreds of rabbits in his yards.”

The portrait she paints is of one very odd neighbor. She recalls Leboeuf one time stopping his car in the middle of the Richardson Highway to block her husband’s vehicle on the way to Glennallen. When Gene got out of his car to see what was going on, she said, Leboeuf recognized him and apologized. He said he was trying to stop the man who was "stalking my wife,” Meredith said. "I don’t think anyone was stalking (Loretta). She was very much a homebody."

Some wonder if that was all of her own design.

Marilyn Joe, a relative and a coworker at Ahtna, said, "I don’t know if she was held hostage or what. We weren’t allowed to talk to her on the phone. (Jesse) wouldn’t let us talk to her. He was really something else. Everyone just kind of wanted to keep their distance from him."

William Buck, Sternbach's son, said he believes his mother made her own decisions.

"Some of my family on my mom's side did not like Jesse at all, and they all had their reasons for saying he forced my mother into doing what they did,'' he said in a text message. "That is definitely not true. My mother is not one to be forced into anything. They both did what they did, and there was no force used on my mother at all.''

Buck added that he mainly wants to get beyond what happened to his mother. "I'm sure you can understand,'' he said. "I just want this behind me. It caused a terrible year for me.''

"I feel bad for Loretta,” Meredith Weaver added. "She came from a really nice family. We’re close friends of some of her family. To me it was sad. Both her parents died, and then she went to jail.”

Just days before her arrest, Meredith said, Lebouef obtained the necessary state paperwork to marry Sternbach’s son, William Buck, to his new wife. It was a very happy time for the family. Buck had a job as the Tazlina Village Public Safety Officer. He had dreams of becoming a trooper. The dreams died when his mother and Leboeuf were arrested. There were reportedly suspicions he must have known something, or should have known something, or in some way failed as a member of the law enforcement community

That "totally ruined his dreams of becoming a police officer,” Eskilida said. "He was really dead set on becoming a trooper.”

He isn’t even a VPSO anymore. Rumors swirling in the Glennallen area had him fired for what his mother did, but Buck said, "there is no truth to my losing my job. I left my VPSO positon for my family, which was nearly a year before the arrest. The job was not good for my home life....I remain in good graces with the program and support their work. It just wasn't for me.''

Buck, like Wernick, is moving on. It is a task sometimes difficult after life deals someone a bad hand.

Update: This story was changed shortly after publication on May 6, 2012, to include the comments of William Buck.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.