3 Makah Tribe members accused of killing whale during rogue hunt plead guilty to misdemeanor

Tacoma, Washington (AP) 4-08

Three Makah Tribal members accused of killing a gray whale during a rogue hunt off Washington state last September pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge, while two others plan to go to trial in April.

Theron Parker, William Secor Sr. and Frankie Gonzales each admitted in U.S. District Court in Tacoma that they violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, after prosecutors agreed they would not recommend jail time or seek to curtail the men’s hunting rights.

Sentencing was scheduled for June 6.

Wayne Johnson and Andy Noel, the two leaders of the hunt, declined the plea deal and decided to take their cases to trial.

Prosecutors say the five took two motorboats into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off Washington’s northwestern tip, and shot the California gray whale at least 16 times with at least one of the three high-powered rifles they had obtained from the tribe.

The men did not have the tribe’s permission for the hunt, nor did they have a federal permit to kill the whale, which eventually sank in the strait and was not harvested.

Johnson and Noel were in the first boat, serving as captain and lieutenant.

“It was just too difficult for them to say, ‘I’m guilty,”’ said Noel’s attorney, Jack Fiander.

Parker, Secor and Gonzales were in the secondary, retrieval boat.

All five had been expected to enter guilty pleas earlier in the week, but they changed their minds when U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan announced in court that prosecutors might seek to prevent the men from participating in any sanctioned whale hunts while on probation, a term that could have lasted five years.

After Sullivan dropped that possibility, Parker, Secor and Gonzales agreed once again to plead guilty.

The five originally faced charges of conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by a maximum year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

The Makah, who have been whalers for centuries, have sought to resume the hunts as part of their cultural heritage. But their treaty rights to hunt whales have been tangled in the courts for several years.

The federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994. Tribal members’ last legal whale hunt was in 1999.