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Sonoma County Superior Court--
Van Howard Johnson, who state Fish & Game official claim was the mastermind behind one of the biggest abalone poaching operations in state history, was found guilt of all charges. The verdict came after two days of deliberation by the jury.
Jurors have not reached a verdict in the case of co-defendant Angelo August Vichi.
The guilty verdict came after a four-week trial in Sonoma County. Originally the defendants had pleaded guilty in a plea bargain worked out late last year between Geoffrey Dunham, Johnson's attorney, and Superior Court Judge Raymond Giordano. When Judge Giordano withdrew his offer and ordered prison time for the two--following protests over the leniency of the offer--the defendants withdrew their guilty plea and let the case go to trial.
Said Johnson, a 26-year-old fisherman from San Diego, "I conceded I have done something wrong." But he said the figures in the case are exaggerated. "I agree it's not right to take more than the limit . . . but it's not like it hasn't been going on since the beginning of abalone."
Fish & Game has argued that as many as 10,600 abalone may have been taken. If so, the value could have been as much as $402,800. But Johnson said no where near this much abalone was taken, and he denied being the mastermind of the operation. He has a court-appointed attorney and, as he demonstrated, holes in the bottoms of his cowboy boots. If large amounts of money were made, it has yet to be found by officials.
Following the verdict, Johnson was taken into immediate custody pending $100,000 bail. He faces as much as three years in state prison along with fines still to be set.
Abalone poaching has been a touchy issue on the North Coast where diving for abalone is almost a sacred ritual. Sports and commercial divers alike claim that the penalties for poaching are too small to discourage the activity.
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