Bizarre Alaska Wildlife Raid Nets Victorian-Era Stolen Art

Exactly where or when the life of Loretta Sternbach took a turn toward the dark side no one is sure now.

The daughter of a true Alaska war hero and a one-time "Alaska Native Elder of the Year," she started early and well down the trail from a rural, subsistence-oriented Alaska to success in the so-different world of America today. There was college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; the position as president of the Chitina Native Corp., a small village business formed after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; and then comptroller for Ahtna Inc., a $243-million regional Native corporation with more than 460 employees. And today she is in a federal prison, starting a three and a half year sentence after pleading guilty to what some might consider relatively petty crimes.

She tried to help broker the sale of walrus ivory and polar bear hides for Alaska Native hunters from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The Native hunters there can legally hunt bears. They can also legally hunt walrus and take the ivory. The Marine Mammal Protection Act exempted Alaska Natives from what is otherwise an almost total ban on the hunting of marine mammals. But Native hunters cannot legally sell the hides or ivory they obtain to non-Natives.

Enter 52-year-old Sternbach, the daughter of an Eskimo man from the Bering Sea coast and an Athabascan woman from the Copper River basin, and long-time companion Jesse Leboeuf, 47. They tried to maneuver around the Marine Mammal Protection Act to make a little money for everyone. It was a sketchy proposition to begin with and got worse when Lebouef began bartering for ivory, as well as buying it. He traded cigarettes, snowmachines, ammunition, firearms, marijuana and more, according to federal authorities. Trafficking in drugs is obviously illegal, and in America you can only traffic in guns and ammunition if you have a license.

Leboeuf had no license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And this was just the beginning of his problems.

Hillbilly Alaska

An investigation into his activities and an eventual search of the couple's rural Alaska home led to automatic weapons and firearms silencers, which are only legal if registered and permitted; and -- perhaps most surprising -- Victorian paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars that had been stolen years ago from a Connecticut woman. And Leboeuf, according to federal authorities, turned out to be a convicted felon. He'd been found guilty of theft in Spokane, Wash., in 1982 before making his way north to Alaska.

Whether Sternbach knew the full details of his criminal past is not clear. Friends and acquaintances paint her as both a willing accomplice and the victim of...