louis martin
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Sonoma County Superior Court--

In a case involving the biggest abalone poaching operation in California state history, one defendant accepted a two-year state prison term yesterday, while two others reversed earlier guilty pleas, setting the stage for an April trial. The case has been closely watched by sports and commercial abalone divers who want stronger sentences for poachers.

Eddie Blay of Santa Rosa accepted two years of state prison time, along with a fine of $20,000, and was taken into immediate custody. It was a stronger sentence than had been offered in a plea bargain worked out back in December between Blay's attorney and Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano. The December plea bargain had angered prosecutors, the Department of Fish & Game, and many sports and commercial divers because of it's leniency.

Van Howard Johnson and August Angelo Vichi decided to withdraw their guilty pleas and let the case go to trial when Giordano withdrew his original offer of limited county jail time and instead ordered two years of state prison for each.

"State prison is where Eddie Blay belongs," said Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Brook Halsey. While sentencing could have been stronger--three years is the maximum in the case according to Fish & Game code--it was a much strong sentence than originally discussed. With the earlier plea bargain out of the picture, Halsey said he is prepared to go to court and get convictions against Johnson and Vichi.

This is what the department of Fish & Game, which feels it has a strong case against the defendants, has wanted all along.

Despite the day's turn of events, defense attorney Geoffrey Dunham said that "things are not entirely bleak" for his client, Johnson. Johnson, a 26-year-old San Diego fisherman, is considered to be the mastermind behind the operation. Dunham plans to ask for a change of venue in the case because of remarks by Giordano that he claimed will prejudice the case in Sonoma County.

"The courtroom remarks were that 'these guys ought to go to prison.' Now I can't think of anything that's going to pollute a jury pool more than the judge saying that the defendants who are now on trial ought to go to prison." There is also going to be a motion to disqualify the prosecutor.

These motions will come up in March. The trial is set for April 5.

Dunham also called the testimony of Kon Karpov, the state's marine biologist in charge of abalone resources, "distinctly undamaging." Many, however, found the testimony of Karpov quite damaging--he stated that about 14% of the sports catch for a year had been taken by the poaching operation, and that the deep water resource of Sonoma County had been damaged as a result. It was Karpov's testimony that changed Giordano's mind, causing him to retract his December offer.

Mike Kitahara, secretary of the California Abalone Association and a commercial abalone diver, was pleased with the additional jail time given Blay but expressed concern that fines are still too low. Because the divers were not licensed for commercial abalone diving, they are receiving sentences for sports fishing violations.

Kitahara pointed out that the fines for a commercial abalone diver--five times the value of the catch--would have been much greater. For the amount of poached abalone--10,600 as estimated by Karpov--the value would be $402,800 and the fine would be over $2 million. "There is a discrepancy," said Kitahara.

The proposed fine for Johnson was $40,000--or one fiftieth of the value of the catch if it was as high as $2 million. The defense has argued that the amount was much lower.

Kitahara is pushing for legislation that would close the discrepancy between fines for commercial and sports violations.

It has been an emotionally charged case with angry abalone divers filling the courtroom. At today's session, however, it was Johnson's fiance displaying anger; she was prevented by the bailiff from hitting Halsey with a high-heeled shoe.



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