louis martin
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Sonoma County--

Abalone poaching is big business among the small economies of the California North Coast. In a plea bargain last week, 4 defendants got a deal that some say, from a business point of view, means abalone poaching is worth the risk.

In a case involving one of the biggest poaching operations in the history of California, 4 defendants entered guilty pleas to all charges on the condition that they will not go to prison. Fines also appear to be minimal.

Said Dave Bezzone, the key Sonoma County Fish & Game warden responsible for busting the operation, "I'm still getting calls asking, 'What the hell happened?'"

Abalone diving draws many tourists to the Sonoma coast; for many it is something of a sacred ritual.

The State of California based its case against the poachers on the case of Darrell Tatman, who was sent to prison for poaching. Tatman had multiple violations in a number of counties, but the case that sent him to prison for 3 years was based on a single violation: taking 196 abalone in Mendocino County in 1989.

Van Howard Johnson, a fish buyer from San Diego, was the mastermind behind the Sonoma operation. His defense attorney, Geoffrey Dunham, argued before Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano that the Tatman case was more serious because it involved multiple violations.

But according to Bezzone, the Johnson case represented the same kind of multiple-violation situation. That is because the operation went on for at least a year with regular shipments of abalone being flown from San Francisco International airport to San Diego.

Bezzone, the prosecutor, and others were shocked by the lenient plea bargain worked out by Judge Giordano.

Said Bezzone, "There was never any indication from anybody that we were on the wrong track." Both Bezzone and the Sonoma County District Attorney's office, which is handling the case for the state, were surprised when they went into court last week--Bezzone to give testimony in the case--and found that a deal had been cut between the judge and the defense attorney.

Brooke Halsey, the prosecutor in the case, said Johnson was charged with felony conspiracy with 12 Fish & Game violations. But he said, "The judge decided that this was not a state prison case and indicated to the defendant that if he pled to all the charges, he would not send him to state prison."

Said Halsey of the plea bargain, "It deeply concerns our office; it deeply concerns me." Two years of work were involved in catching the violators, he said. "To have the system fail us in this way is a great tragedy. I believe they are sending entirely the wrong message out there."

Mike Kitahara, a professional abalone diver and secretary of the California Abalone Association, said he was "appalled" at the plea bargain, calling it a mere "wrist slap."

"Netting 2 and a half million dollars for a 40,000 dollar investment sends the message to people that it's well worth the risk," said Kitahara.

Kitahara believes that prison time is appropriate given the nature of the offense. "There was no ignorance involved in this. These people knew exactly what they were doing."

It's been estimated that 20 tons of abalone were removed from the Sonoma coast for as much as $2.4 million. Bezzone said these figures are probably high, but he said that hundreds of thousands of dollars were probably made in the operation. Johnson rented a house in Cazadero where divers brought their abalone. He supplied divers with scuba equipment for collecting abalone and scanners to avoid detection by Fish & Game. It is illegal to dive for abalone with scuba gear.

Fifteen others have been charged in the operation, including 4 restaurant owners--Kin Lai, Sally Lai, Yick Pang, and Xioa Yang--who bought illegal abalone. The restaurant owners are due for sentencing January 17. Final sentencing of Johnson will take place January 19.

Bezzone is concerned that they will also receive minimal sentences. They are the owners of the China Garden Restaurant in Santa Rosa, and the same judge is hearing the case. Said Bezzone, "I have a real concern now that the judge is swinging towards something less than what we anticipated." He said it is the buyers that set the precedent. "They're the ones that allow the activity out on the coast, the actual taking of the abs."



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