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Four Bemidji area men cleared of alleged poaching charges

ST. PAUL -- Four Bemidji area men accused of poaching fish on tribal lands between 2009 to 2011 were cleared of charges in federal appeals court Tuesday.

A total of 10 men were indicted on felony charges of transportation, sale and purchase of fish taken in violation of tribal law. Of the 10 people indicted, eight now have been cleared of the charges stemming from "Operation Squarehook."

On Tuesday, a judgement filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit Court in St. Paul cleared charges against Michael D. Brown and Jerry "Otto"  Reyes, of Cass Lake, and Marc Lyons and Frederick "Bud"  Tibbetts of Bena. Lyons died on Nov. 22.

"I fought this for four years. It's been a long time coming, this case," Brown said Tuesday.

Brown said he hopes the case has exposed the truth about what actually happened regarding the alleged poaching and the ruling may protect people's rights from being violated in the future.

Netting and fishing on the reservation is part of the Ojibwe culture. Brown learned to net from his grandfather in the 1970s. Brown said he always had a permit when netting and he traded fish and donated it for wakes, funerals and memorial services.

"They don't talk about that in the court case," Brown said. "We got treated worse than meth dealers in court. All over fish...My kids were woken up at gunpoint. It was a pretty scary situation over walleye."

In 2010, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began Operation Squarehook, which investigated illegal sale of fish in northern Minnesota focusing on allegations that tribal members caught walleye on lakes within the reservations and sold them to non-Indians at below market rates.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state law enforcement and authorities from the Red Lake and Leech Lake Indian Reservations were involved in the investigation. The 10 men arrested in 2011 were among 30 people charged with criminal offenses resulting from Operation Squarehook.

According to court documents, the indictments against Brown, Reyes, Lyons and Tibbetts alleged they had netted fish for commercial purposes within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation in violation of the Leech Lake Conservation Code, then sold the fish.

Authorities said that was a violation of the Lacey Act, which was originally signed in 1900 and is a conservation law enforcing criminal and civil penalties for the illegal trade of animals.

Brown, Reyes, Lyons and Tibbetts moved to dismiss the indictments on the grounds their prosecution violates fishing rights reserved under the 1837 Treaty between the United States and the Chippewa.

Brown, Reyes and Lyons are members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Tibbetts is enrolled with the White Earth Band.

Charges against Brown, Reyes, Lyons and Tibbetts were terminated in November 2013, but federal prosecutors submitted an appeal to the court's decision to dismiss indictments, arguing the Lacey Act promoted tribal sovereignty.

Tuesday's judgement denied the appeal.

"After giving consideration to the arguments by the United States, we conclude that appellees are entitled to assert the Chippewa Indians' fishing rights and that this prosecution under the Lacey Act conflicts with those rights," as stated in the court's judgement.

Indictments against Larry Good, Thomas P. Sumner and Brian W. Holthusen, of Red Lake, and Larry W. Bellefy, of Bagley, who also were arrested in the case, were dismissed in 2014.

Charges still are pending against Michael J. Nei, of Bemidji, and Alan D. Hemme, of Bena.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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