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Usually it is the defendant who feels the pressure. But now it may be a Superior Court Judge who worked out a plea bargain that some have called a "slap on the wrist" for one of the largest abalone poaching operations in state history. Without explanation, sentencing scheduled for the 17th of January was postponed to the 29th, and a source close to the case said the judge has found himself caught in a bind.
Four of the defendants were to be sentenced on the 17th as part of a plea bargain worked out late last year between Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano and defense attorney Geoffrey Dunham. It was a deal that left Fish & Game officials and the Sonoma County District Attorney stunned and confused. By the terms of the bargain, the operation's mastermind, Van Howard Johnson of San Diego, was to avoid state prison and pay relatively small fines for admitting guilt.
Since announcement of the plea bargain, media attention leading to public pressure appears to have rattled the judge, and a report by the Probation Department has recommended prison time for at least 4 lesser figures in the case--Eddie Blay, wife Debra, cousin Randall, and Angelo Vichi.
On the North Coast, where diving for abalone is close to a religion, many felt outraged by the proposed light sentences. Professional diver Mike Kitahara drubbed it a "wrist slap." Said Kitahara, "Netting two-and-a-half million dollars for a 40,000 dollar investment sends the message to people that it's well worth the risk."
Attorney Dunham had argued for a sentence that would avoid legal costs for Sonoma county while requiring the defendants to pay for abalone restoration. He argued that a court trial could cost the county up to $150,000. Neither the District Attorney nor the Department of Fish & Game was consulted in the plea bargaining.
Some, like diver Mike Kitahara, felt that a light sentence set a poor example. Asked Sonoma County Fish & Game warden Dave Bezzone, "When is justice ever cheap?" Bezzone is credited with busting the poaching operation.
With the Probation Department now recommending prison time for the lesser defendants, it is likely it will recommend prison time for Johnson also. However, Johnson, 26, has no previous criminal record; at least 2 of the other defendants do.
It is the job of the Probation Department to look at the total picture of the defendant's life and to recommend appropriate sentencing. That includes an assessment of whether the defendant thinks he has done anything wrong.
According to a San Diego fisherman who has observed Johnson, he is smug about what he has done. Johnson told him that he "got a pretty sweet deal" and acknowledged making a lot of money. Johnson, according to the fisherman, still has his license and is fishing for lobsters and trapping fish as well as selling abalone. Despite employment, Johnson has a court-appointed attorney.
"He seem so high and mighty still," said the fisherman. "You'd think that somebody that's been implicated in such a bad thing would be a little more humble."
Commercial fishermen are angry with Fish & Game for suggestions that the commercial abalone fishery may be closed. Commercial fishermen, especially urchin divers, have been accused of poaching violations. As a result, in recent years many commercial fishermen have helped identify the poachers and asked for stiff penalties for violators.
Bezzone has a different view of Johnson, saying that his outward attitude is only "bravado." "Johnson knows what's coming down; he's a wreck," said Bezzone.
He acknowledged that Johnson is still fishing and that his license has not been revoked, but said that generally the Fish & Game Commission revokes licenses--not the Department--and does so after sentencing. That makes it "cleaner," he said.
Judge Giordano can retract his plea bargain offer--he's not bound to it, and that could occur next week. But Bezzone said he doesn't know what is going to happen. Giordano is not predictable, he said. "He's thrown a curve ball before."
As much as 20 tons of abalone may have been removed from the Sonoma coast over the course of a year in an operation involving 16 individuals. Johnson supplied divers with scuba gear, which is illegal to use when diving for abalone, and scanners to avoid detection by Fish & Game.
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