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It was a roller-coaster legal journey for Larry Bellefy, a Red Lake band member and one of the 10 defendants. Bellefy, who owns a bar in Bagley, Minn., was indicted on a charge of buying poached fish and reselling it. He pleaded guilty July 26.
After Tunheim tossed four of the Leech Lake indictments in November, saying they violated Indian rights under an 1837 treaty, Bellefy tried to withdraw his guilty plea, but U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle would not allow it, and a sentencing date was set. After prosecutors revealed the legal flaw, Kyle dismissed Bellefy’s indictment.
In the state cases, the DNR has some “preliminary information” that 38 charges were brought against 26 individuals in Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Itasca, Otter Tail, Pennington and Polk counties.
Of the 38 charges, 30 resulted in convictions, the DNR said. Ken Soring, chief conservation officer for the DNR, said he believed that none of those convicted received jail time. One person charged is now deceased; one had his charge dismissed and referred to tribal court. Some cases involved plea agreements that included dismissal of some charges and convictions on others.
“There were another 11 individuals where 27 charges were identified that were not charged because of limitations, prosecutorial discretion, tribal jurisdiction or the individual being deceased,” the DNR said.
The status of cases brought in Red Lake or Leech Lake tribal courts is not known. Calls to officials at both reservations were not returned.
Let tribe handle it?
George Goggleye, chairman of the Leech Lake tribal government from 2004 to 2008, said in a recent interview: “I didn’t think [the indictments] were a good idea to begin with. The tribe has its own conservation code. The tribal conservation officers should have handled this, not the government.” He said the men involved should have been issued tickets rather than being indicted.
“A lot of these people were my friends who were indicted, and provided fish to families who could not go out to fish themselves,” he said. “These people were targeted. It was politically motivated at the time. These people did not support the tribal leadership.”
With this year’s fishing opener on Saturday, the DNR’s Soring was asked what impact the federal inaction will have on enforcement. “We will still be enforcing state laws as we always have,” said Soring.
He also underscored that poaching hurts all anglers. “If everyone was compliant,” he said, “limits on walleye could potentially be higher than they are. Compliance is necessary in order to maintain a healthy fishery.”
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224