Ramifications of trial verdict still unclear

What next?

Posted: Sunday, April 30, 2000

Kenai's bounty hunter trial may be over, but the dust is far from settled. Cloud-ing the air are vastly opposing reactions to the "not guilty" verdicts.

Defending the state's po-sition, Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho said the outcome should not be taken as a stamp of approval for bounty hunting in Alaska.

"We hope the result of the trial will not encourage other bounty hunters to do the same thing," said Botelho, referencing the events of Oct. 1, 1998.

At the other side of the issue, Nikiski resident Tom Spangler said he believes the 12-person jury opened the door for recovery agents (bounty hunters). Spangler, who has limited his activities to other states because of Alaska law, said the outcome of the April trial has changed his mind.

"I'd risk (working in Alaska) now," said Spangler. "(The defendants) went in with weapons. They didn't break in, but they did take someone out of the home and the jury found that was right."

Caught in the dust storm are key figures in the case whose futures remain uncertain.

Equally held prisoner by the resulting confusion are Alaskans who guard the privacy of their homes and question the role of private persons making arrests.

On the evening of Oct. 1 1998, Don and Margaret Roberts and their nephew Ricky Welch were settled in the Robertses' Nikiski living room watching television. The Robertses teen-age grandson was in another room of the home.

Armed with two handguns, a shotgun and a packet of paper work they said gave them authority for their actions, Dave Cameron, Ron Williams and Seth Oehler entered the home and arrested and removed Ricky Welch on a state of Washington felony arrest warrant.

Cameron, Williams and Oehler subsequently were charged with three counts of third-degree assault and one count of first-degree burglary. In November 1998, a grand jury upped the ante by including charges of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

The defendants based their innocence on:

n The state of Washington felony arrest warrant for Ricky Welch;

n Welch's signature on an indemnity note with Northwest Surety, which had guaranteed Welch's compliance with Washington court orders to the tune of $10,000 (Welch's signature on the note approved searching for, capturing and returning him to the Washington court if he didn't comply); and

n Advice given to Cameron by Sgt. Barry Ingalls, head of Public Safety's Wants and Warrants section at the time. Ingalls also provided Cameron with a copy of an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Taylor vs. Taintor, which addresses the authority of bounty hunters.

"Taylor vs. Taintor is no longer an accurate statement of the law," said Botelho and Ron Otte, commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, in a memo distributed to all law enforcement agencies two months later. The memo said that in Alaska bounty hunters are governed by the same laws governing private citizens.

Chuck Robinson, attorney for Ron Williams, has taken exception to the state's position.

"You can't supersede a U.S. Supreme Court decision," said Robinson. "You just can't."

Bill Bradley, owner of Alaska Bail Bondsman in Anchorage, maintains the same belief.

"Federal government is supreme over any law," said Bradley. "That's a judicial, undisputed fact."

Seemingly supporting the state's position, Kenai Superior Court Judge Jonathan Link ruled prior to the trial that:

n Alaska statute abolished any common law right of a bail bondsman to arrest a defendant and return him directly to another state;

n Welch's agreement to be arrested did not serve as consent to restrain him; and

n Advice from the troopers was not a defense.

During the trial, after the state presented its case, Link dismissed the charges of kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap.

"I did so because in order to prove the crime of kidnapping the state must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, among other things, that the defendants 'unlawfully' restrained Ricky Welch," read Link's instruction to the jury.

Link said the defendants had acted on information that Welch was charged with a felony, although that information later turned out to be inaccurate.

By returning "not guilty" verdicts, the jury also made clear its belief that the state was unable to prove the remaining charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

"What we have is a Superior Court judge who ruled in the state's favor initially and then in the middle of the trial changed his mind about the law," said Dean Guaneli, chief assistant to the attorney general. "We're left with a judge who really can't make up his mind."

Cynthia Cooper, deputy attorney general, said legal rulings made by a Superior Court judge are not binding on any other Superior Court or District Court judge. In other words, this case has little, if any, judicial impact.

In terms of bounty hunting in Alaska, Spangler offered advice for the future.

"If I had my way, there would be a state license for us," he said. "There's a professional way to do this."

Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, stands ready to resurrect House Bill 33, an act relating to bounty hunters and to capturing criminal suspects or fugitives. It died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, after passing to the Senate in May 1999.

"I'll be glad to resurface this issue if where we are at now isn't adequate to deal with the problem" Dyson said.

In the meantime, Alaska law remains unchallenged and unchanged.

Kenai District Attorney Dwayne McConnell, who stressed in closing arguments that this was a case of home invasion, applied the state's position locally.

"It's certainly my position that anyone going into the house of another person in this area to recover someone will be looking at criminal charges based on what happens," McConnell said. "I'll be looking at it as a criminal case."

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