louis martin
cns news & features

Sonoma County--

In a high-profile case in which a judge has shown baffling leniency, sentencing has finally begun, and perhaps due to public attention sentences are somewhat stiffer than expected.

The case is that of the largest abalone poaching operation in California state history. According the Konstantine Karpov, Fish & Game resource manger for the northern and central California coast, the poaching operation netted as much as 14% of the commercial take for the entire year and damaged the deep water stock that is crucial to regeneration.

On Monday, Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano passed sentence on 4 of 16 defendants, starting with the lesser defendants.

Daren Natman, who was involved in the operation for one day only, netting 84 abalone with scuba gear, drew 60 days in county jail. The Probation Department had recommended 6 months in state prison. He was also ordered to pay $10,000 to an abalone restoration fund.

Paul Scott Sanders drew 90 days in county jail, as opposed to 9 months in state prison, as recommended by the Probation Department. He was ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution.

Randall Blay, whom Deputy District Attorney Brook Halsey described as "very active" in the operation, drew 120 days of county jail time, as opposed to 2 years in state prison as recommended by Probation; and Jerry Wade Mitchell drew 1 year in county jail, as opposed 2 years in state prison as recommended by Probation. Both Blay and Mitchell were ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution.

While the judge's sentences were somewhat stiffer than those anticipated by the prosecution, they fell far short of what prosecutors wanted and the Probation Department recommended.

"I am disappointed in the sentencing," said Halsey, "but I'm thankful that the court didn't follow the request of the defense counsel and lower the pleas to misdemeanors."

All 4 received felony convictions, along with 5-years probation.

Sentencing for 3 major players in the poaching operation will occur tomorrow; for mastermind Van Howard Johnson, a fish buyer from San Diego, sentencing will come next Tuesday. Tomorrow's sentencing is "significant," said Halsey, because it will indicate what to expect for Johnson.

The prosecution has been routinely frustrated in the case, and Fish & Game has accused the judge of "throwing curve balls."

Due for sentencing tomorrow are Eddie Blay, wife Debra, and August Angelo Vechi. All have previously pled guilty to all charges, but a plea bargain worked out between the defense and judge Giordano in December has riled commercial and sports divers alike--along with the Department of Fish & Game and the District Attorney's office.

By terms of the plea bargain, all would avoid state prison--they would do some time in county jail--and pay penalties that some have called a mere "slap on the wrist."

This, according to a source close to the case, has put the judge in a difficult position--especially as the case has gathered increased public attention.

The Probation Department has recommended state prison for all 3. The judge could sentence them to county jail as offered in the plea bargain. But that is unlikely to sit well with the public. If he does an about-face and sentences them to state prison, then the defendants have the option of withdrawing their guilty plea. If they do, then the case will go to trial. But in December's plea bargain the judge subscribed to the defense notion that a trial was best avoided. The reason? Sonoma County couldn't afford it.

Either way, the judge finds himself in a bind.

Dave Bezzone, the Fish & Game warden who is credited with busting the operation, was somewhat heartened by today's proceedings, since the defendants were convicted on felony charges. But he still called the sentences "minimal." He was also heartened to see the attention the case has drawn. Today's court room was packed with concerned sportsman.



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