ANCHORAGE -- Wildlife enforcement officers received a treasure trove of videotapes after a feud erupted over the estate of longtime Bush pilot Floyd Saltz, who died in a 1998 plane crash.
The videotapes of smiling hunters and their trophies confirmed long suspicions about Saltz' activities at a remote cabin west of Anchorage and they led to nearly a quarter of a million dollars in fines and restitution, along with forfeiture of two airplanes, a dozen weapons, and 17 game trophies.
Convicted of federal charges of aiding and abetting in the illegal take of game were Saltz' brother, Edwin, 66, and Troy Hodges, 68, a longtime associate of the Saltz brothers. Both men live in Soldotna.
Hodges got the stiffest penalty: four months in home confinement, a $100,000 fine, and loss of his Piper PA-18 Supercub.
Saltz will spend four months in home confinement, pay a $50,000 fine, and lose his Supercub.
Authorities say the men did not have a transporter or guiding license.
Fourteen hunters, including three Alaskans, also entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court. The Alaskans were Clyde Saltz, 59, of Soldotna, another brother, Anchorage physician Ed Crouch, 58, and Brett Aldridge, 35, of Soldotna.
Authorities had targeted the operation for years. But they'd been unable to get the proof they needed, according to Lt. Franco D'Angelo of the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection Troopers.
Then the videotapes dropped into their laps. D'Angelo called the result the biggest such case he's seen in Alaska.
''There was a family feud of sorts among several friends and relatives concerning his (Floyd Saltz') business, FS Air,'' said federal prosecutor Steven E. Skrocki. ''As part of that feud, several videotapes were delivered to Fish and Wildlife Protection that clearly showed illegal guiding and same-day airborne (hunting) at Stony River.''
It had been that way for decades, with few consequences. Prosecutors say Floyd Saltz ran the illegal guiding operation at a cabin on the northern edge of Lake Clark National Park from at least 1984 until his death in a 1998 plane crash on St. George Island.
In 1989, Saltz lost his guiding license, along with an airplane, when he was convicted in state court of same-day airborne hunting and wanton waste. But he stayed on law enforcement radar.
A few years later, National Park Service rangers noticed a lot of activity at the Stony River site, according to Stan Pruszenski, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
State and federal officers staked out the site for several days. But their prey had become more wary.
''They had encrypted radios,'' Pruszenski said. ''They had their own language.
''Back in 1997 or 1998, we did a search warrant on the cabin,'' he said. ''We went out with Floyd Saltz to show us his camps. After interviewing some other folks, we found out Floyd (Saltz) went out and made dummy camps, cut some brush and left a Milky Way wrapper.''
They couldn't make a case against Saltz that time. But they did nab the plane, which he had bought back from the state, said D'Angelo of the troopers. The officers could prove it was used in same-day airborne hunting, but not who was piloting it at the time.
With the tapes, though, things got a lot more concrete.
''People shown in the videos were identified, contacted by the agents, and confessed,'' said prosecutor Skrocki. He and D'Angelo said the hunters clearly knew what they had done.
''They had their eyes on the prize instead of doing the right thing,'' Skrocki said. ''Many of them were not in good enough physical shape to hunt in the area.''
''In some of the videos they're even looking at the hunting regulations, and being coached that you should say you stayed overnight in the field,'' D'Angelo said. Hunters were also told to say they were friends of Saltz, not clients, D'Angelo said, ''the kind of things you get in illegal guiding situations.''
Deceased actor Ben Johnson, who starred in ''The Last Picture Show,'' was among the hunters portrayed on the tapes. The convicted hunters included three lawyers and two retired police officers, along with the Anchorage doctor, according to prosecutors.
The out-of-state hunters all had to travel to Anchorage to enter their pleas in person.
From Arizona came Bill Haley, 63, of Dewey; Douglas Kurbat, 63, of Phoenix; Scott Smith, 36, of Phoenix; Gregory Harkleroad, 52, of Prescott, and William Dignan, 54, of Glendale.
Dignan paid the largest fine, $10,000, plus $1,450 in restitution. He forfeited a black bear trophy and was put on probation for two years. Haley received a $7,000 fine, paid $2,450 in restitution, and gave up a moose, caribou, black bear and a rifle. The others paid $5,000 fines and $850 in restitution.
Convicted Minnesota hunters were Robert Lange, 51, Bloomington; retired policeman Arlo Vikre, 58, Cass Lake; Robert Karbowski, 69, Bena; Dennis Willie, 47, Minneapolis; and Eugene Flick, 52, Stillwater. Lange was fined $8,500, paid $3,100 in restitution, and lost a Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and two rifles. The other men paid lesser penalties. All were put on probation.
Randall Cosman, 40, of Clinton, Iowa, paid a $5,000 fine and $1,850 in restitution. He took moose, grizzly and caribou mounts off his wall.
For the Alaska hunters, Clyde Saltz paid a $500 fine and $550 in restitution; Crouch was fined $7,000, paid $2,00 in restitution, and forfeited two moose and a rifle; Aldridge paid a $3,500 fine and $2,450 in restitution, and turned over to authorities a black bear and a rifle.
Some of the violations involved using the aircraft to spook the animals toward hunters, said prosecutor Skrocki. ''And we were able to document several instances of waste by some hunters at the direction of Floyd Saltz,'' he said.
Beyond the fair-chase issue, said Pruszenski, the operation was significantly impacting the game resource in that part of the state.
The two seized airplanes have been transferred to the state. They'll either be put into service in the field or sold for cash that will be used to buy another enforcement aircraft, D'Angelo said. He estimates the planes are worth about $40,000 each.
Floyd Saltz was 60 when he died in a July 7, 1998, crash. The small FS Air turboprop slammed into a cliff on St. George Island, in the Pribilofs, while attempting to land in bad weather. Also killed was Anchorage lawyer Hal Horton. Both were pilots, and it was not clear which man was at the controls.
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