ANCHORAGE (CN) – An undercover wildlife agent investigating a man for selling walrus tusks stumbled upon polar bear hides, stolen art by Lucien Pissarro and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and felons with machine guns, federal prosecutors say.
The game agent turned up a scheme to trade endangered mammal parts, including two polar bear hides and 230 lbs. of walrus tusks, according to a forfeiture complaint, a superseding indictment and Jesse Joseph’s Leboeuf’s guilty plea.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office seeks forfeiture of five stolen works of art found at Leboeuf’s home in Glennallen, Alaska. Leboeuf is also known as Wayne G. Christian.
According to a Bloomfield Police Report, the stolen art includes a chalk study, three watercolors and an oil painting: “Study of Alexa Wilding,” by Rossetti; “Milton” by Pissarro; “Nests at Kilmurry,” by Mildred Anne Butler; “Castle and Figures in a Farmland,” by William Payne; and “Landscape and Cattle on the Thames,” by Henry Garland.
All were originals and/or signed; most were produced in the 19th century and had been auctioned to private sellers at Christies and housed at museums in America and London, according to the police report and the federal complaints. Three of the five works had been reported stolen by a private owner, Nicolette Wernick, and were valued at $68,000, according to the police report and complaint.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Jeffrey Meehan discovered the stolen art in September 2010 while investigating Leboeuf and Loretta Audrey Sternbach for Lacey Act violations: illegally selling walrus tusks and other wildlife. Sternbach is named as a defendant in the superseding indictment, as is Richard Blake Weshenfelder.
According to the forfeiture complaint: “On or about December 11, 2010, Leboeuf described five stolen art paintings he possessed, concealed and stored in his house, to a USFWS undercover agent. He told the agent how the paintings were stolen by his half-brother, later identified as Mario Murphy, and some other ‘cousins,’ from the Wernick Collection approximately five years before. Leboeuf gave the agent photographs of the artwork which on the back had notes referencing the name of the artist and title as well as an estimated value. Leboeuf wanted the undercover agent to find a buyer for the stolen artwork. He promised to pay the agent a finder’s fee if the agent brokered the sale of the artwork.”
A month later, “On or about January 4, 2011 Leboeuf again told the agent about the stolen artwork he possessed, concealed, and stored in his house. Leboeuf told the agent that he had received the stolen artwork from his half brother, Mario Murphy, who transported the stolen paintings from back east to Alaska,” according to the forfeiture complaint.
Agent Meehan stated in an affidavit that Leboeuf showed the paintings to agents in his living room, pulling them from black plastic bags in a cardboard box. He told the agents paintings were worth $30 million but he would settle for $1 million, according to the affidavit.
The Fish and Wildlife Service then obtained and executed a search and seizure warrant.
Leboeuf, Sternbach and Weshenfelder were indicted in April 2011. All pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Lacey Act and/or violating it, and illegal possession of unregistered machine guns and silencers, according to court documents.
The Lacey Act violations involve trafficking in “raw, unaltered marine mammal parts.”
“The objectives of the conspiracy were to illegally purchase and transport walrus tusks and polar bear hides from individuals in Savoonga, Alaska for illegal resale and transport to non-Alaska natives in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act, all in violation of the Lacey Act,” according to the indictment.
“Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), it is unlawful for any person to transport, purchase, sell, or offer to purchase or sell any marine mammal, marine mammal part, or marine mammal product for any purpose other than public display, scientific research, or enhancing the survival of a species. Under the MMPA, ‘marine mammal includes the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) and the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus). ‘Marine mammal product’ includes ‘any item of merchandise which consists, or is composed in whole or in part, of any marine mammal’ which includes products made from walrus tusks.”
Only Native Alaskan Indians, Aleut and Eskimo are excepted from the MMPA restrictions, and only if they take the mammals for subsistence or use in handicrafts. Weshenfelder “marketed the walrus tusks via the Internet, “contacted potential buyers to purchase the walrus tusks via email, and emailed the tracking numbers for the walrus tusk shipments to the non-Alaska-native buyers,” the indictment states.
Leboeuf “personally negotiated the unlawful sales of walrus tusks through regular telephone conversations and sold the walrus tusks to non-Alaska-native buyers both in the United States and abroad,” according to the indictment.
Sternbach is the only Native American in the bunch, the indictment states. It says that she and Leboeuf “used the United States Postal Service to send and receive payment for the purchase and sale of walrus tusks and polar bear hides and to send packages containing walrus tusks to non-Alaska-native buyers.”
It continues: “In order to circumvent the law and conceal the illegality of the walrus tusk sales to non-Alaska-native buyers, and to promote and increase the illegal sales of walrus tusks, Loretta Audrey Sternbach wrote and signed a ‘gift’ letter to the buyers purchasing walrus tusks to make it appear that the walrus tusks were acquired legally by the buyers. The letter stated that the tusk was a gift from Loretta Audrey Sternbach and included her Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) number, the tusk tag number, and the home phone number for Jesse Joseph Leboeuf and Loretta Audrey Sternbach.”
In a single 2-month period, the group bought 560 pounds of walrus tusks from Alaska natives, sometimes trading them for firearms and ammunition, and illegally sold them to non-Native Alaskans, often in Colorado, at $150 per pound, according to the indictment.
The bartering also involved marijuana, currency, knives, cigarettes and even a snow machine, according to the indictment. The marine mammal parts included polar bear hides, whale teeth and whale vertebrae.
Three of the five paintings were confirmed as stolen through the “Art Loss Register;” all are in USFWS custody.
Rossetti’s “Study of Alexa Wilding” is a black and white chalk study on gray paper signed with a monogram and dated 1870. Its provenance has been trade to a Christie’s auction of March 11, 1927. At one time it was at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Mass., and part of the collection of Harold and Nicolette Wernick. Rossetti, a 19th century English poet and artist, wrote sonnets to accompany his sensual, dreamlike works. The movie “Dante’s Inferno” is based upon on Rossetti’s relationship with one of his model muses and the mental decline he suffered when critics savagely reacted to his first collection of poetry.
“Nests at Kilmurry” by Mildred Anne Butler is a watercolor dated 1886. At one time it was in the Yale Center for British Art, in the Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Mass., and part of the collection of Harold and Nicolette Wernick. Butler was an Irish watercolorist.
Pissarro’s “Milton” appears to be a watercolor dated 1917. It is signed and inscribed in the lower left. “To my friend C.R. Chisman Lucien Pissarro 10-12-36.” It too was part of the Wernick collection.
“Cattle And Figures in a Farmland” is a watercolor by William Payne. Payne, an etcher, invented the tint “Payne’s grey,” and his style of rendering sunlight and atmosphere made him a fashionable drawing-master in London.
“Landscape and Cattle on the Thames” by Henry Garland is an oil painting dated 1875. Little is known of Garland, who specialized in scenes of rural life and landscapes with cattle.
Jeffrey Meehan, the USFWS Law Enforcement agent in Anchorage who spearheaded the investigation, has conducted numerous investigations involving natural resource crimes and fish and wildlife violations. He was unavailable for comment.
Illegal trade in animals and animal parts is one of the most lucrative, and ecologically destructive, forms of smuggling on Earth. Aside from drugs and perhaps electronics, it may be the most lucrative form of smuggling there is. The best account of it is the 1991 book “Game Wars,” by the late Marc Reisner, who also wrote the classic history of Western water policy, “Cadillac Desert.”