Hunter with criminal past convicted again
July 6th, 2011 | Jennifer Gibbins
A Cordova jury found Michael A. Roberts, 50, guilty of unlawful possession of game following a two-day trial that concluded on June 23. The trial was remarkable for several reasons, the first being that Cordova has not had a criminal jury trial in approximately seven years. Secondly, although jurors did not know Roberts and were not privy to his prior record, this was a high-profile defendant.
Roberts' long history with the law ebbed into celebrity status in 1999 when he fled into the woods while being pursued by a trooper helicopter following an extensive sting operation that began with an inquiry from a California hunter who became suspicious of Roberts' credentials. Roberts' East Coast family made an emotional public appeal to the then-fugitive hunting guide to turn himself in after evading arrest for approximately two weeks. In the end, Roberts was on the run for almost a year before he was finally arrested and brought to trial on 16 charges including running an illegal guiding operation, guiding without a license, hunting without a license - and similar to last week's trial - unlawful possession of game and same-day airborne hunting. At the time of the 2000 trial, investigators seized animal parts including bear gallbladders they said were destined for sale on the Korean black market.
According to court records, Roberts is a repeat offender who has served jail time and whose other run-ins with the law include failure to pay child support, using a false Social Security number, driving without a license, flying without a license, theft, sub-legal hunts and wanton waste of wildlife. His latest brush with the law came about while Roberts and friend Theodore Williams were returning from a hunting trip last fall to Cape Yakataga. Roberts, flying a friend's Piper Supercub, touched down in Cordova briefly to refuel. Trooper Alex Arduser had noticed the plane flying overhead earlier and while driving to the office noticed the plane parked at the city airstrip. Arduser observed moose antlers tied to the plane's struts and stopped briefly to ask the travelers whether they had a moose harvest ticket. Williams replied that he did, however it was somewhere in his luggage. Arduser asked Roberts if the antlers were legal size and Roberts replied matter of factly that yes, they measured 52 inches, a point which authorities later contested. The travelers indicated to Arduser that they had been hunting 13 miles from Cape Yakataga and had been weathered in for several days. The pair was anxious to return to their final destination, which they indicated was Anchorage. Arduser testified that he was mindful of the limited fall daylight hours and knowing that it would take some time for them to unpack the plane to locate the hunting license and then repack it, he determined to let the men get under way. Arduser returned to his office and got on the computer to look up the missing harvest ticket only to discover that Williams did not in fact have a valid harvest ticket and the case unfolded from there.
Williams was ultimately found guilty of hunting without a license. He was fined $5,000 and served 10 days in jail. As part of his deal with the state, Williams agreed to testify in the case against Roberts.
In December, the defendant made a non-opposed motion for a change of venue to hold the trial in Cordova.
In Cordova's court
Taking the stand, Williams acknowledged that Roberts had landed the plane 400 yards from the bull moose and said he got excited and shot the moose by accident; and that Roberts was upset with him for doing so. Williams testified with crisp recollection of some facts however, although the pair had earlier told troopers they hunted 13 miles from Cape Yakataga, on the witness stand Williams stated that he was not really familiar with the area and was unaware that Roberts did not have a pilot's license.
Jurors' eyes seemed to glaze over during lengthy and tedious testimony from state troopers Marc Cloward and Alex Arduser as to location of the hunt and dimensions of the antlers, which the state argued could not have been the legal limit of 50 inches. The state also argued that Roberts had recklessly overloaded the maximum gross weight of the Piper Supercub by at least 500 pounds.
The slight and unassuming defendant who sat quietly in the Cordova courtroom has been described in the past by troopers as being highly skilled at evading the law. In delivering the sentence in 2000, which included jail time, fines, 10 years' probation and banning Roberts from any kind of hunting in Alaska for five years, Judge Peter Ashman described Roberts as a "professional criminal."
There was frustration and a sense among some jurors in Cordova interviewed last week following the trial that they had been used.
In closing arguments, Roberts' attorney Chad McGrady, whose attorney-client relationship with Roberts goes back at least four years, told jurors that the state was sensationalizing the case and equating his client to a drunk driver responsible for a fatality. Meanwhile, the state appealed to jurors with a closing argument that strung the facts together and added a reminder that Alaska's wildlife resources belong to the public.
According to some jurors, although their deliberations began with consensus that Roberts was guilty, they wrestled with the complexity of testimony and the parameters and benchmarks imposed in the court's jury instructions. As a result, their deliberations went on for five hours with several questions being referred to the judge for clarification, but in the end they were simply stymied on three of four counts, returning not guilty verdicts on one count of unlawful possession and the charges of reckless endangerment and same-day airborne.
Judge Eric Smith will have final say in the trial and sentencing is scheduled for July 27 in Palmer. Roberts faces as much as $10,000 in fines and up to one year in jail. Additionally, having been found guilty on one count the state has petitioned to revoke prior sentencing.
"I felt sickened after the trial when I learned more about the defendant," said one juror. "He is the kind of hunter I abhor. He is a professional criminal."
Jennifer Gibbins can be reached at email@example.com, or by phone at 907-424-7181.