Leo O. Bergtoll, Anna Lou L. Bergtoll, and Darrel L. Bergtoll Plead Guilty in U.S. Federal Cour
Bill Mercer, United States Attorney for the District of Montana, announced today that during a federal court session in Billings on February 5, 2009, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn S. Ostby, LEO O. BERGTOLL, age 74, ANNA LOU L. BERGTOLL, and
DARREL L. BERGTOLL, residents of Saco, pled guilty to violations of the Lacey Act. Sentencing is set for May 6, 2009. They are currently released on special conditions.
In an Offer of Proof filed by the United States, the government stated it would have proved at trial the following:
LEO BERGTOLL, ANNA LOU BERGTOLL and DARREL BERGTOLL operated the Frenchman Valley Ranch ("the FVR" or "the Ranch"), a multi-thousand acre cattle ranch near Saco. LEO and ANNA LOU, a married couple, lived on the Ranch. Their son, DARREL, owned a separate parcel of land nearby, where he lived with his family.
The rifle season for big-game hunting in Montana spans a five-week period each fall. Going back a decade or more, a fresh group of several non-resident hunters arrived at the FVR each week of the season to hunt big game. These hunting clients were solicited early each year by Louisiana resident A.B., a longtime associate of the BERGTOLLS. By pre-arrangement with LEO and ANNA LOU, A.B. would offer each hunter a week-long fall big-game hunting excursion at the FVR for approximately $1,200. This fee was not paid until the hunter came to the ranch in the fall, but at the time of recruitment, A.B. would collect $800 from each client as a service charge for applying on the client's behalf for a Montana landowner-sponsored buck deer hunting license.
Under Montana law, buck deer hunting licenses are not available "over the counter" to non-resident hunters. Instead, non-residents wishing to kill buck deer must apply, with the sponsorship of a specific landowner, for a license to hunt buck deer on that landowner's property.
Early each year, A.B. would forward the client's names to ANNA LOU, along with the Montana license application fee of approximately $300, pocketing the remainder. ANNA LOU would submit the client names, application and $300 fee for each client to the State of Montana for the landowner-sponsored license drawing. DARREL would also submit a list of client names, obtained from A.B., for his property. The state issues a limited number of landowner-sponsored licenses, and some applicants each year are unsuccessful in the license drawing. In May of each year, the State of Montana would notify the applicants of whether they had drawn a license or not. Every year, some clients recruited by A.B. failed to draw a license. A.B. would encourage clients who did not draw licenses to come and hunt on the FVR anyway, assuring them that licenses could be obtained after their arrival. Clients who drew licenses sponsored by DARREL, which were not valid on the FVR, were nevertheless taken to the FVR to hunt.
Prior to the hunting season each year, LEO, ANNA LOU, and DARREL would also obtain "over the counter" resident Montana deer and/or elk hunting licenses and solicit their other family members and/or hired hands to do the same. LEO and ANNA LOU would buy resident licenses from FVR employees for approximately $100, to later resell to non-resident hunting clients who had not drawn a landowner-sponsored license. (It is unlawful in Montana to hunt without a valid license and to transfer a license issued to one person, to another person.) Meanwhile, ranch employees would be directed to ready a bunkhouse, vehicles and hunting stands for use by A.B. and the hunting clients.
Shortly before the opening of the big game rifle hunting season each year, A.B. and the first group of clients would arrive in Billings by air and be transported to the FVR by a ranch employee. Subsequently during the season, A.B. would transport each weekly group of hunters between the FVR and the Billings airport. A.B. would advise each group of clients that, licensed or not, they could shoot buck deer or bull elk if they wanted. Upon arrival at the FVR, each client paid the $1,200 fee, either in cash or by check made out to "Frenchman Valley Ranch." Approximately 20 permanent wooden hunting blinds are present on the Ranch. A.B. would cook for each group of clients and tell them what hunting stands to use each day. Many clients who had not drawn a landowner-sponsored license shot buck deer or bull elk. When this happened, a license which had previously been issued to one of the BERGTOLLS, a family member, or hired hand, was sold to the client for $100. Trophy parts of deer and elk killed unlawfully by unlicensed hunters, "covered" by resident licenses, would be transported to a nearby taxidermist for mounting, or occasionally transported by the clients to their home states.
As payment for his "client wrangling" services, A.B. would retain at least one hunting fee of approximately $1,200 each season, in addition to the approximately $500 profit he made on the application service charge he had previously collected from each client.
In some years, as noted above, DARREL sponsored clients recruited by A.B. for landowner-sponsored licenses on his property, which is separate from the FVR. However, all hunters who arrived in Montana were taken to the Frenchman Valley Ranch to hunt, regardless of the specific property to which a given license applied.
During the 2003 fall big game hunting season, approximately 10 buck deer (whitetail and mule deer) were killed on the FVR by paying, non-resident hunting clients who either did not possess a landowner-sponsored buck deer license, or possessed a landowner sponsored license for property other than the FVR, including DARREL'S property. All such animals were tagged either with invalid landowner licenses or Montana resident licenses issued to a BERGTOLL or a ranch employee. Investigators from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks discovered the scheme in 2003 and have since cited, fined and seized mounts of poached animals from dozens of hunting clients who participated in the scheme.
LEO BERGTOLL faces possible penalties of 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and 3 years supervised release.
ANNA LOU and DARRELL BERGTOLL each face possible penalties of 1 year in prison, a $100,000 fine and 1 year supervised release.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Anderson prosecuted the case for the United States.
The investigation was conducted by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
A copy of the Offer of Proof can be obtained by contacting Sally Frank at (406) 247-4638.