Former Cooper Landing guide Thomas Murray was sentenced Wednesday at the Kenai Courthouse to 60 days "shock jail time" for stealing from former clients. He also was ordered to pay restitution within two years of his release.
Court officers remanded Murray to Wildwood Correction Center after the sentencing.
Judge Anna Moran suspended Murray's imposition of sentence. If he pays the full amount of restitution, totaling $17,229.55, within the ordered amount of time his record will not contain a felony conviction. He has no prior criminal charges.
Murray pleaded guilty on March 23 to stealing from nearly 70 clients by failing to provide trips booked with his Cooper Landing guide business, Wise Guide Outfitters. He also pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree unsworn falsification -- for Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend fraud -- and one count of false information on a fishing license.
Clint Campion, Alaska assistant attorney general, began the hearing by outlining the state's stance on jail time and the amount of restitution to be paid. Defense attorney Stephen Hale argued his client's actions were an "anomaly."
Murray attended the sentencing in person, his first such appearance since being charged with stealing from his former clients. He attended prior hearings by telephone. His mother and sister attended the sentencing as well. They came from Utah, where Murray has lived for the past two years since the state charged him in December 2011.
He appeared in court wearing a white button-up shirt and blue jeans. He kept a calm demeanor throughout the hearing.
The prosecution invited Alaska Wildlife Trooper Investigator Eric Hinton, who led the investigation of Murray's theft, in case the defense disputed any facts in the pre-sentence report. No facts were disputed, however.
The most serious charge, a consolidated count of second-degree theft that listed four victims identified in the case's original charges, is the tip of the iceberg, Campion said.
"It's much larger than that," he said. "Lodge owners and other guides filled the gap for Mr. Murray."
The defendant did not turn himself in, he continued.
Murray's remand follows an investigation by Hinton that began in September 2010. Troopers reported Murray sold fishing vacations on eBay for the 2010 and 2011 fishing season, but then failed to provide for some or all of these vacation packages.
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.
An abandoned client took it upon himself to contact other clients and warn them Murray had disappeared, Campion said in court.
"And during his initial interview with troopers, he admitted that he'd ripped people off but offered no explanation," Campion said. "The state wants to send a clear message that it's not OK."
Hale argued putting his client in jail would serve no purpose.
"He's a productive member of society, and the court will never see him again," he said.
At the beginning of the hearing, Moran said she was curious to hear Murray's explanation.
Bad business practices that snowballed out of control caused the actions, he responded when he spoke before the court.
He operated his Cooper Landing guide business successfully for 20 years. When the economy took a dive in 2008, however, he booked too many trips and could not keep up, he said.
"What if your family traveled to Alaska to find themselves abandoned?" Moran rebutted.
Murray also said he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago, around the same time troopers charged him.
"I screwed up," he said. "I wasn't mentally stable and have since started taking medication."
When asked how much restitution he could pay every month, he said about $500. He also saved $1,500 to give toward restitution the day of the sentencing.
A former client of Murray's, Mike Leever of Bayard, Neb., attended the hearing via telephone and briefly spoke to the court.
Waiting for $500 every month provides little help, Leever said.
"We thought the world of him," he said. "And then he told us he had a brain tumor. We lost all our faith in him."
The sentencing is difficult, Moran said, because Murray's two seasons of stealing from clients occurred along a continuum. The 2010 thefts could be explained by financial irrationality, but the second year made the crime more serious.
Having no criminal record and others speaking well about Murray's work ethic -- coworkers submitted letters of support to the court -- does not excuse abandoning people.
As Moran imposed a sentence for the three counts, Murray turned around and faced his two family members with a sullen look on his face.
The judge set 60 days jail time and three years probation, focusing mostly on the second-degree theft charge. She ordered Murray to pay $2,872.55 for the sworn falsification charge to be paid after his former clients.
Murray may have more trouble than he previously thought paying back his former clients. The Alaska Department of Corrections needs to approve the defendant's departure from the state. His job, and low-income housing provided by family, is in Cedar Hills, Utah. The state, however, generally requires offenders to pay half their owed restitution before they are allowed to leave the state. An agreement between the two states needs to be reached, too.
The conditions of his three years of probation stipulate he cannot operate an outfitting or guide business during that time, but he may work for a these businesses. Also, he can operate his own business following probation.
Campion said others could still pursue their own restitution in civil cases.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.