Lots going on here, that’s for sure. Was any of it legal? Nope.
In a criminal complaint filed on July 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accused two men of conspiring to operate illegal big-game hunts in Alaska. It is against the law in Alaska for a non-resident to “hunt, pursue, or take” brown bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, or sheep unless that person is accompanied by a licensed guide or a family member who is a resident. In 2021, an informant told state troopers “about a group of Chinese immigrants conducting unlicensed big game guided hunts” near Fairbanks. Did the troopers want to know more about that? Yes they did.
Their investigation found that an Alaska resident named Jun “Harry” Liang was advertising guided hunting trips on a Chinese social media site called “Little Red Book” (i.e. Facebook for Communists). According to the complaint, Liang (“hereinafter referred to as ‘LIANG'”) is a Chinese national living in Fairbanks who marketed the trips only to other Chinese nationals (in the U.S. or China). The complaint includes screenshots in which LIANG and other men were shown hunting in what “appeared to be a remote unpopulated area [with] topography and vegetation known to your affiant to resemble Alaskan[-]type topography and vegetation.”
None of that is illegal (although the use of all caps should be), but the investigation continued.
Undercover agents fluent in Mandarin contacted
LIANG Liang and expressed interest in going on a hunt. Liang said he would take them on a week-long caribou hunt for $24,300 per person. When the agents said they were interested in bears, the price went up to $30K each. For that, Liang said, he would make all the arrangements, “then we will go to the hunting area to find animal. The hunted animal you can ship back of consumption, can find butcher to process and package to ship.” (Pretty sure this part came from Google Translate, not the fluent Mandarin speakers.)
Given that “animal” = “bear” in this context, that statement was potentially incriminating because, as mentioned above, Alaska law restricts non-resident bear hunts (not, I hasten to add, non-resident-bear hunts, something totally different). Also, it is illegal to buy or sell brown-bear or grizzly-bear parts, with minor exceptions that do not include gallbladders. Bear gallbladders are, unfortunately, considered highly valuable because they are used in “traditional Chinese medicine.” I doubt the bear medicine actually helps people, but it’s definitely not good for the bears.
The agents sent Liang money, and he arranged a bear hunt for late 2022. Among other things, Liang went with the agents to get the necessary permits. When the state employee asked about the legal requirements, Liang didn’t claim to be a licensed guide (because he isn’t). But he made a call and then handed the phone to the employee. The person on the phone admitted he also was not a guide, but assured the employee that he was an Alaska resident and, in fact, the brother-in-law of the would-be hunters. (Under the Alaska law, brothers-in-law count as family members.) After this rigorous security procedure had been completed, the employee issued the necessary permits. Off they went to kill bears.
But a hunting trip wasn’t all Liang wanted to sell his new clients:
During the drive LIANG offered to buy a bear gall bladder from [one of the agents] if their hunt was successful. State of Alaska law prohibits the sale of bear parts. LIANG also offered to provide prostitutes to the [agents] during their hunt.
Yes, in addition to pimping bears, LIANG also said he could provide women. He made that offer again after they reached the campsite, saying the price would be “approximately $1800 per night or $500 per sex act.” [NOTE: Joke about which might be a better deal has been deleted.] He also offered to sell the agents a bear gall bladder for $5,000, which suggests he didn’t think they were very likely to hunt one down themselves. Pictures taken during the trip also show another guy, identified as Brian Phelan, who’s the second defendant in the case. PHELAN allegedly is LIANG’s neighbor, and, it turns out, also played the mysterious brother-in-law.
The agents presumably declined Liang’s offers (the complaint doesn’t say that, but let’s assume), and after a few bear-free days they decided to end the sting operation. They “tipped” Liang $1,500, and he promptly mentioned this on his Little Red Book page, thus further confirming he arranged the illegal hunt.
So what does all this add up to? And, you might also be asking, why is this a federal case when they broke state law? Well, there’s probably a state case too, but there are plenty of federal crimes here. Liang got people to send him money by lying about being a licensed guide, and he did this online, so that’s wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343). He bought things with the money they sent him, so that’s money laundering (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 & 1957). His buddy Phelan agreed to help him do some of this, so that’s conspiracy (18 U.S.C. §§ 371). LIANG, it turns out, is in the U.S. illegally, on a visa that expired in 2016. That means he’s not allowed to possess a firearm, which you can see him doing in the picture above (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(b)).
Oh, both defendants are also charged with attempting to violate the Lacey Act, which as you know makes it a federal crime to violate state fish-and-game laws if interstate commerce is involved (18 U.S.C. § 3372 et seq.). What, you don’t remember? Sigh. See, e.g., “United States v. 1855.6 Pounds of American Paddlefish Meat” (Nov. 14, 2018), and the sequel, “Update: The Paddlefish Defendants Are Now for Sale (Jan. 28, 2019). Please try to take better notes.
I assume the state will bring charges for violating those same fish-and-game laws, as well as the state laws against pandering, bear-gallbladder trafficking, and embarrassing a state employee by fraudulently impersonating a brother-in-law. Although that last one kind of seems like piling on at this point.