By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Two Alaskans pleaded guilty on Friday to illegally buying and selling hundreds of pounds of walrus tusks in what prosecutors described as Alaska's biggest wildlife-trafficking case in nearly 20 years.
The pair, along with a third defendant scheduled to plead guilty next week, were arrested in April on charges of trading cash, guns, cigarettes and at least one snowmobile for around 1,000 pounds of raw walrus ivory and other animal parts.
They obtained the materials by trading with Yup'ik Eskimo hunters from the impoverished village of Savoonga, located on an island in the Bering Strait, according to court documents.
Under federal law, only Alaska Natives may harvest walruses, whales, polar bears and other marine mammals, and only for traditional subsistence purposes.
Federal law forbids any sale of raw animal parts from marine mammals, though Alaska Natives are permitted to sell finished works of art crafted from animal parts.
A trial for all three defendants had been slated to start this week over a trafficking conspiracy that involved tusks from an estimated 100 walruses, along with skulls, bones and hides of polar bears and whales, court documents said.
Jesse Leboeuf, of Glennallen, Alaska, pleaded guilty to five of the 15 counts against him, including weapons charges as well as wildlife-trafficking offenses.
In return, prosecutors agreed to the dismissal of 10 other counts and a nine-year prison sentence followed by three years of supervised release. Under the original indictment returned in April, he had faced up to 65 years in prison if convicted.
The second defendant, Richard Weshenfelder of Anchorage, admitted to helping sell the walrus ivory over the Internet and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, a federal statute that protects wildlife.
The third defendant, Loretta Sternbach of Glennallen, was scheduled to plead guilty at a hearing on Tuesday, according to court documents.
As part of their plea deals, Leboeuf and Sternbach had one unusual request -- they hope to become legally married before being sent away to serve their federal sentences.
The two have been living together as a couple for 24 years, Leboeuf told the judge, but if they are not legally married they might not be allowed to correspond with each other from separate federal prisons.
"We got a 22-year-old son and a grandson now. We've never been apart," he told the judge.
U.S. District Judge Tim Burgess said he will try to accommodate the marriage plans in time for the scheduled November 4 sentencing.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)