A Utah trophy hunter bagged a bear in Alaska. It was legal, he thought — and that’s where his troubles began.

Lotteries are illegal in Utah to raise money for education, but the state does use them to fund wildlife management.

In 2015, Wallace Scott Keele plunked down $10 for a crack at a “sportsman” elk permit and hit the big-game jackpot, winning a coveted San Juan County tag on Elk Ridge. That fall, he bagged a trophy bull. A year later, though, he found himself in court in Monticello, charged with a felony for allegedly poaching that animal.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), which netted $114,000 off that lottery, contended Keele’s 2014 conviction in Alaska for shooting a brown bear “over bait” disqualified him from hunting in the Beehive State while he was serving a two-year suspension ordered by an Alaskan court.

Keele, a 57-year-old paving contractor from Heber City, insists Utah wildlife officials mishandled his case, sending him mixed signals about whether his Alaska punishment extended to his home state by selling him hunting tags and failing to acknowledge his cooperation in a federal case that took down a corrupt hunting guide.

“It’s insane how corrupt the DWR is. Why did they take my credit card and sell me permits if I wasn’t eligible to hunt?” Keele asked. “They said that it was a computer error. So I pay for that?”

DWR officials dispute his characterization of the case, arguing he had no business seeking hunting tags in Utah, since an interstate poaching compact would extend his Alaska penalty to the Beehive State.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the elk poaching case, as well as a second one for a cougar Keele killed that fall in Wasatch County, citing DWR’s missteps in selling him tags in the first place. But Salt Lake City prosecutors pressed on with 16 counts of “misuse of a suspended license,” all stemming from tags he bought while he was on the Alaska suspension.

After three years of legal wrangling and $30,000 in legal fees, Keele stopped fighting last month.

He has withdrawn an appeal to pretrial rulings and is scheduled to appear Tuesday in Salt Lake City Justice Court. In a deal with prosecutors, he plans to plead guilty to two counts and expects to receive an 18-month suspension, which would cover the next two rifle seasons.

“I got scared; I gave in,” Keele said. “[Salt Lake City prosecutor Nikkie Frampton] threatened that she would take it to the end, and I would never hunt again. It scared the crap out of me.”

For committed hunters such as Keele, the loss of hunting privileges is a form of exile never to be taken lightly.

From state to state

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wallace Scott Keele in the trophy room of his Heber City home, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.

Underlying Keele’s troubles is Utah’s participation in the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, an agreement among 47 states that ensures a hunter who poaches wildlife in one state will be barred from hunting in the other member states.

This compact is modeled after an interstate agreement regarding driver license suspensions. Motorists who lose their license for drunken driving in one state, for instance, cannot simply get a new license in another state.

“No matter what the level of violation was, if you are suspended in one state, you are suspended in the other state,” said Doug Messerly, who oversees the compact program for DWR. “You get your due process in the state in which you were convicted. The wildlife compact was modeled on that because it stood up to judicial scrutiny.”

He argues Keele’s gripe should be with Alaska, not Utah.

DWR had sent Keele a letter stating his Utah hunting privileges were under suspension while he was serving his probation in the Alaska case. Keele acknowledges receiving the letter, but he wondered if it was in error and sought clarification from Tony Wood, DWR’s now-retired enforcement chief.

After Keele and Wood exchanged five or six phone calls, according to Keele’s lawyer, Greg Law, the DWR official advised him to try to buy tags and if he was truly under suspension, his purchases would be rejected.

Using the same customer ID he had used for 20 years, Keele went for it and succeeded on 16 occasions in 2014 and 2015.

Messerly contends the mix-up stemmed from Keele’s name. His Alaska conviction was under his legal first name “Wallace,” but he commonly goes by “Scott” and has purchased hunting tags through the years using variants of his full name. So Keele’s name on the compact database did not match with the name he used to buy the tags.

‘Operation Bruin’

But the story goes back a few years earlier, when Keele met Ronald Martin, one of Alaska’s most-revered guides, at Utah’s Western Hunting & Conservation Expo in 2010. Keele wanted to get an Alaskan brown bear for his trophy room and hired Martin to show him where to go.

On his two trips to Haines, Alaska, Keele was struck by the locals’ respect for the elderly guide.

“When you walked around with him in Haines, you would think you were with the governor,” Keele said. Much to his chagrin, he would later learn that Martin regularly ignored Alaska’s hunting regulations.

He was unsuccessful in 2010, so he returned with his son in May 2011. Both Utah men had valid tags to take bears. On the 2011 trip, the elder Keele shot a brown bear over a station baited with dog food and grease near Chilkat Lake, while the son bagged a black bear.

While it is legal to shoot black bears over bait in Alaska, that is not the case with brown bears. Keele became one of 17 out-of-state hunters charged in the feds’ “Operation Bruin” investigation into Martin and another prominent Haines guide, John Katzeek.

“For most of us, when you leave your state, you don’t have to go and do the scouting and all that," said Law, Keele’s attorney, “so you’re paying a premium fee to pay to have that guide take you to the proper area ... and help you ethically harvest an animal.”

Keele and another Heber City resident, who had poached a goat under the direction of one of Martin’s guides, pleaded guilty in state court in exchange for lenience. Keele forfeited the bear, paid a $5,000 fine and accepted a two-year hunting suspension he thought was for Alaska only.

“The prosecutors said, ‘All we ask is if you will be available to testify [against Martin] if needed,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Keele said. Martin wound up pleading guilty to federal Lacey Act violations. Keele’s testimony was not needed.

The Utahn later secured an order from his Alaskan judge, indicating his punishment was confined to that state.

“He believes he was made promises in Alaska, but do you see how I can’t get into [the details of every case]? Last year, there were 5,500 entries [into the compact],” DWR’s Messerly said. “It’s impossible to review each and every case and offer a hearing to every person in Louisiana who was suspended by Georgia if they want to come to Utah and go hunting.”

Given the circumstances, however, some Utah prosecutors were uncomfortable following through with the charges arising from the elk and cougar Keele shot in 2015. Last year, San Juan and Wasatch prosecutors dropped their cases.

In a letter to DWR explaining his decision, San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws predicted that trying Keele would end in acquittal and further erode DWR’s reputation.

“How was your system not able to flag him and reject his application if he was suspended?” Laws wrote. “The issue above has the appearance of shady behavior by the DWR for those who are already hesitant to trust the division in San Juan County. I have very little doubt that a jury of San Juan County citizens will see Mr. Keele as a victim of poor communication and negligent use of technology on the part of the division.”

Although Keele obtained his tags in Heber City, Salt Lake City prosecutors got involved and charged Keele in their jurisdiction under the rationale that DWR’s computer servers are located in the capital city.

“Under that theory," fumed Greg Law, Keele’s lawyer, “we could prosecute him anywhere from Wasatch County, where he lives, to India or any other place where data is flying through our system.”