Hopes of touring the Last Frontier pervaded Donald Maeker's thoughts for many years. In 2006, before traveling the state with John Hall's Alaska Cruise and Tours, he made plans to fish on the Kenai Peninsula.
A John Hall employee recommended Thomas Murray's Wise Guide Outfitters in Cooper Landing. Maeker enjoyed two successful fishing trips with Murray, but lost $5,103 to false promises of a third trip in 2011 -- a trip he planned with his family.
"I was shocked," Maeker said from his home in Faltonia, Texas. "I just couldn't believe that he would do something like that. And hell, my family thought he was our best friend."
Murray, now residing in Cedar Hills, Utah, is charged with stealing $90,000 from about 70 clients by failing to provide trips booked with his guiding business in 2010 and 2011. His preliminary hearing was Jan. 5. Murray's court case continued with his attorney stating more negotiation time was needed.
A state prosecutor with the Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals and Murray's attorney, Stephen Hill, attended the hearing telephonically. Hill said he was working out a plea agreement. A status hearing was scheduled for February.
Wise Guide Outfitters was established in 2003. Murray started selling fishing trips on eBay around 2005. He arrived in Alaska in June 2010 for the fishing season, but left two months later because he "kind of lost it," according to court records.
When two of Murray's clients attempted to confirm the status of their trips they received email responses with different scenarios. In a July 1, 2011 email Murray wrote he had "been in a bit of a bind over the last year," and in a Sept. 10, 2010 email he claimed he had a brain tumor and was scheduled for surgery the next week, according to court records.
Court records do not indicate the reason for Murray's departure in 2010 or detail his mental state at the time.
For his first trip, Maeker decided on the Upper Kenai River package -- a one-day excursion Murray recommended. The fishing guide promised wildlife and an abundance of fish, he said.
"It was Thom and I alone on the river for the entire day, and it was tremendous," Maeker said.
In 2010, Maeker traveled back to Alaska with his son, Stephen, and his 10-year-old grandson, Barnes. Maeker had such a good time with Murray that there was "no question" about where to book the trip, he said.
Maeker bought a five-day fishing trip on eBay, a method Murray had been using for three years.
He said the trip couldn't have gone better. Murray even taught Barnes to use a fly rod.
A third trip was inevitable, as Maeker's grandson was eager to return. Another purchase through eBay in 2010 for a trip the following year -- with a winning bid of $3,402 and an additional $1,700 paid by check for a third person -- took a turn for the worse when rumors of Murray's alleged schemes began to surface.
Barnes was eager for the trip, so Stephen attempted to visit Wise Guide's website. He immediately saw negative comments regarding Murray's business, Maeker said.
"(Stephen) said, 'I ran into some trash out there on Thom, and it sounds like he's burned some people,'" he said.
After contacting the Alaska State Troopers and discovering the rumors were true, Maeker still decided to travel with the help of Cooper Landing acquaintances, such as Arden Rankins of Kenai Lake Escape and Lovie and Willie Johnson of Alaskan Sourdough Bed and Breakfast.
Bob Rima, owner of Kenai River Drifters Lodge, worked with Murray and offered services to visitors.
Rima said Murray owes his business a small sum, but nothing close to the thousands of dollars allegedly stolen from out-of-state travelers. Drifters Lodge doesn't intend to file a lawsuit, he said.
"I don't think he intended to (steal) like this," Rima said. "He's probably not that bad of a guy. When people screw up they tend to dig deeper and deeper, spiraling downward."
Maeker said he believes Murray didn't intend to steal all along, and he wondered about the fishing guide's business practices occasionally, he said. Having worked as an accountant and a loan officer himself, Maeker was concerned about the record keeping.
"He was doing real well collecting all this money from his clients with those services not provided for a year, maybe," he said. "I always thought if he was not setting money aside for the future to take care of his business then he would be in trouble. Maybe he just lost control of his money."
Murray remains out of custody at his home in Utah. He was ordered to pay 10 percent of a $5,000 appearance bond. Prosecutors said he was not a risk for fleeing.
A status hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 8 at the Kenai Courthouse.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.