5 tribal whalers reject plea deal after rogue hunt in Washington

by Gene Johnson
Tacoma, Washington (AP) 4-08

Five tribal members charged with killing a gray whale during a rogue hunt off Washington state rejected a plea deal after federal prosecutors said they might seek to curtail the men’s hunting rights.

The Makah Tribe members believed they were acting within their tribal rights when they harpooned and shot the whale Sept. 8 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, defense attorney Jack Fiander said. But they acknowledged there was enough evidence for the court to convict them, and each had planned to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As expected at their hearing in U.S. District Court, prosecutors agreed not to recommend jail time but surprised the men when they said the government was interested in seeking to prevent them from whaling while on probation.

The hunters said they would rather take their chances at trial.

“I have no choice but to go all the way now,” Wayne Johnson, who captained the whaling crew, said after the hearing. “You can’t trust Uncle Sam.”

An indictment alleges Johnson, Frankie Gonzales, Theron Parker, Andy Noel and William Secor took two motorboats into the strait 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.

The five originally faced charges of conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 (euro64,800) fine. They also faced tribal charges of violating the tribe’s Gray Whale Management Plan, breaking state and federal laws, and reckless endangerment.

U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan said he thought the whalers were aware their hunting rights could be barred as part of the plea deal. He said that he might take it off the table in future negotiations.

It is unlikely the defendants will resume negotiating with the government, Fiander said.

“It was difficult enough for them to agree to plead guilty,” he said. “They only did that because it’s what their tribe wanted them to do. ... They had very little faith in the government to begin with.”

The killing was a public relations disaster for the tribe, which had been working with federal authorities to arrange a legal hunt, and Makah officials rushed to Washington, D.C., to assure the government they did not approve.

A lawyer for the tribe, John Arum, said the Makah would dismiss tribal charges if the men plead guilty in federal court.

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.

Animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.