To understand why a small mob of law enforcement officers converged on the Alaska state courthouse in downtown Anchorage Monday to head off what looked to be a simple hearing heading rapidly toward a full-scale riot, you have to go back more than a decade in time to some dead wolves and track forward from there the crazy saga of David Haeg.
Haeg is a man who after years of dwelling on a questionable conviction for aerial hunting came into a courtroom looking for some form of justice only to end up face down on the floor with six court officers on top of him in front of a crowd of screaming supporters and his sobbing daughter.
He was then tazed, handcuffed and led off jail.
But this only begins to capture the craziness of a story about state officials who might, or might not, have lied; of a state court judge, who might or might not have conspired to convict an innocent man; and of a man who in some ways never really grew up.
At the center of all of this is Haeg, an emotional, 51-year-old who never got past that stage we all go through in childhood where we think life should be fair. It’s not. At some point in time, it wrongs all of us. It kicked Haeg in the gut.
Back in 2004, Haeg helped gun down some wolves in Central Alaska because he thought that was what the state wanted. Only a year earlier, the Alaska Board of Game had approved a predator-control program calling for aerial wolf hunts.
The program quickly exploded into a public relations nightmare. Outside animal-rights activists threatened a tourism boycott. “Howl-ins” were organized in major U.S. cities as a form of protest.
“In Alaska, the wolf wars have taken a sobering turn for the worst,” the New York Times opined on March 14, 2004. “In nearly 20,000 square miles of the state it is now legal for private citizens to shoot wolves from airplanes and helicopters. In one district the limit has been increased from 10 wolves a year to 10 wolves a day.
“In these districts, the new regulations call for an 80 percent ‘temporary’ reduction in the wolf population. But a reduction on that scale is merely likely to be the first step towards the total elimination of wolves.”
With the country’s most influential news organization expressing such views, Alaska tourism businesses were near panic and putting pressure on then Gov. Frank Murkowski to do something. But the Game Board in Alaska is a quasi-independent state entity, and the wolf-control program had the support of a significant number of Alaskans.
No politician in his right mind would want to wade into that quagmire, and there was an easier political path – a path that emphasized the wolf-control program wasn’t a project run amuck but a carefully monitored program to control wolves in limited areas of the state where they were harming moose and caribou populations.
Enter Haeg, a big-game pilot and guide.
Legal until not
Haeg and friend Tony Zellers, a shooter, applied for and obtained a state permit to shoot wolves in a kill zone in state Game Management Unit 19D, an approximately 8,000-square-mile area surrounding the community of McGrath on the north side of the Alaska Range in vast Central Alaska.
Both Haeg and the state agree on this.
Haeg and Zellers shot nine wolves. The state and Haeg agree on this, too.
The agreements pretty much end there. The state eventually charged Haeg with shooting the wolves 80 miles outside of the boundary of the kill area. After the charges were levied, Haeg was portrayed as a rogue, out-of-control hunter violating the rules for a closely controlled state program.
The portrayal fit nicely with the state’s intent to make it appear it was maintaining close oversight on its wolf-control program.
Haeg contends a state Fish and Wildlife Trooper helped promote the rogue-hunter image by doctoring maps to make it appear he had gone far outside the aerial, wolf-kill zone, and more than that, Haeg argued that he had only been doing what the state wanted.
The best evidence is the wolves were shot 20 to 30 miles outside the control area boundary, but well within GMU 19D, the management unit in which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wanted to reduce wolf numbers. And there is no doubt the state wanted wolves dead in GMU 19D.
Feeling unfairly prosecuted, Haeg sought the help of attorney Brent Cole.
A lifelong Alaskan, Cole once oversaw the prosecution of fish and wildlife violations for the state. After he went into private practice, he became well-known as a legal “fixer.” He has a reputation as an attorney adept at settling cases.
When rich and influential Alice Rogoff, the publisher of the state’s largest newspaper, botched a float-plane landing, clipped a tree, almost killed a bald eagle, and crashed into the waters of Halibut Cove adjacent to the community dock in 2016, she called in Cole to help clean up the mess.
Cole saw to it that Alaska State Troopers who arrived on the scene shortly after the crash never got to talk to Rogoff about what happened, or make her blow a breath test as they would after a motor vehicle accident with similar damage.
What else transpired is unknown, but Rogoff managed to hang onto her pilot’s license despite a very public demonstration of questionable skills, although she did, at least temporarily, lose her floatplane rating.
Unfortunately for both Haeg and Cole, Haeg is not a settling kind of guy. Haeg did sit through a five-hour, plea-agreement interview. Instead of helping settle the case, it did the opposite.
The state used statements made during that interview to charge Haeg with hunting wolves from the air to benefit his guide business. The argument was that killing wolves reduces predation, reducing predation increases prey populations, and more prey could increase the chances for Haeg’s hunters interested in killing moose, caribou or Dall sheep.
“It was then that I realized I wasn’t being treated fairly,” Haeg told (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion reporter Jerzy Shedlock in 2012 in a rare moment of understatement.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Haeg was in 2005 convicted of illegally hunting wolves from the air. He contends District Court Judge Margaret Murphy, Alaska Wildlife Trooper Brett Gibbens and his own attorneys conspired to convict him.
Haeg appealed his conviction, claiming state prosecutors used perjured witnesses and violated the rules of evidence, and that Judge Murphy had prejudiced his defense, among other things. The Alaska Court of Appeals eventually sent the Haeg case back to the lower courts to consider some very limited issues, and it has bounced around in the court system ever since.
Whether Murphy and Giibbens did or didn’t do anything wrong has never been proven, but Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides, who was pulled into the case in 2010 to review Murphy’s behavior, concluded the trooper and the judge were too close and Murphy shouldn’t be handling the case.
At one point during Haeg’s initial trial, court records reveal, Murphy said she needed to go to the grocery story to get some Diet Coke and figured she would just “commandeer Trooper Gibbens and his vehicle.”
There is more, much more, about all of this at the Alaska State of Corruption website Haeg started in 2009. You can exhaust yourself reading through the files linked there. For better or worse, Haeg is a man obsessed with clearing his name. And he contends there is “widespread corruption” within the Alaska legal system.
And there are no doubt Alaskans among whom those accusations resonate.
The charge itself is impossible to prove or disprove unless money changes hands in the United States, and Haeg has offered no suggestion of that. But there is also little doubt that the legal system in Alaska is, by and large, a community of friends and acquaintances.
“All politics are personal,” some unknown sage observed long ago, and most life in America today is politics. From the outside looking in, it is hard to ignore the Alaska legal system is governed by the unwritten rules of a club.
The first rule of any club is that unless you are member, you are a nobody. The second rule is that all club members go along to get along. Directly challenge this unwritten rule, and you will be either politely asked to leave or expelled.
The recognition of this construct in the justice system has in recent years focused heavily on race and gender, but it goes beyond race and gender. It is sometimes as much about class in an America most like to believe free of class.
“When Paulette Brown was sworn into office on August 4 as the first woman of color president of the American Bar Association, she outlined as one of her key initiatives the association’s No. 3 goal — eliminate bias and enhance diversity,” the American Bar Association magazine reported in 2015. “Brown said that while significant progress has been made in combating more explicit inequalities, implicit bias – the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle prejudices we may unconsciously hold – is a more understated and equally harmful threat to our justice system.
“And she emphasized that ‘none of us are exempt from having implicit bias.’ Citing reports that say the legal profession is the least diverse in the nation, Brown said there is an increasing lack of confidence in the justice system. She cited a recent Harvard study that showed 66 percent of African-Americans said they had not much or no confidence in the system’s fairness, while 53 percent of Hispanics expressed similar misgivings.”
Those African-Americans and Hispanics are not alone. Race and gender aren’t the only diversity missing in the legal system. As in most professions in the U.S. today, including journalism, you won’t find many people connected to the blue-collar world working as lawyers.
Haeg and his crowd, on the other hand, are pretty much a blue-collar group either by upbringing or current employment. At least 50 of them, probably more, dragged themselves to the hearing on Monday because they thought Haeg had been the victim of injustice.
More than a few came from the Kenai Peninsula where Haeg lives. Others were from across the state. There were a signifiant number of Alaska Natives. A few men wore Trump hats. No matter what the national media might write about Trump, his simplest political message – “drain the swamp” – strikes home in parts of this country.
Haeg himself was alone at the attorneys’ table. He long ago gave up on lawyers. So, it was just him, a couple briefcases and a box stuffed with papers.
After the judge left, he said, “I’m going to stay. If you want to arrest me and drag me out, that’s the only way I’m leaving.”
He then started reading.
“This is what I wrote to the Court of Appeals,” he said.
Minutes later, he was on the floor being tazed and cuffed. And then, as he requested, he was dragged out.
Now, not to go too personal in a news story (the author hates writing in the first person), there are some observations reflecting journalistic bias that must be made.
What happened to Haeg in the Anchorage courtroom on Monday – viewed through the eyes of an educated (if you can call the University of Alaska Fairbanks an education), middle class (if just barely that now), white and white-collar reporter accustomed to how the system works (probably the most important thing here), what went down in the courtroom seemed reasonable in the moments in which it was happening.
The judge entered. He dismissed some of the issues Haeg wanted to argue in a legal hearing. He ordered a new hearing for February. And he left the courtroom.
Haeg elected to stay and present his long-prepared arguments to an audience of a couple dozen people, the courtroom being unable to accommodate the crowd that had shown up for the hearing. His arguments seemed to go on for tens of minutes with a court officer shouting regularly “Mr. Haeg, Mr. Haeg.”
His daughter started crying early. Had I been asked, as a professional witness, the time into the hearing the tears started, the guess would have been five minutes more or less. Thus it was a bit shocking to later watch the video of what happened and see that the tears started much earlier and that law enforcement officers descending on Haeg only about three minutes and 45 seconds into his spiel. The video seems to compress time.
Whether the tension in the courtroom distorted time then or the video distorts time now, I cannot say.
What can be said is that those in the courtroom were angry, many of them very angry. Their shouts said it all. There was a lot of profanity, and more:
“They’re killing him.”
“You must be ashamed to be state troopers in this state.”
The reactions were not unlike those from angry crowds of Black Lives Matter supporters. It was hard to ignore the sense that the gap between the American ruling class and the American working class is ever-widening.
“This is a complicated, ugly case,” Haeg friend Tim Twohy said after Haeg was dragged away.
It is also a case that has dragged on too long, a case that floated around the Alaska court system for 13 years because judges see enough in Haeg’s accusations to keep the case alive, but not enough to want to rock the system.
Haeg appeared Monday to be a man pushed to his limit.
The end result, according to Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters, is that he has now been charged with disorderly conduct for violating an order to leave a courtroom.