When pilot and big-game guide David Haeg strayed outside the boundaries of a wolf control area near McGrath in 2004 to slaughter some wolves, there is little doubt he thought he was doing the right thing. Everyone involved with the wolf-killing program for which the state had permitted Haeg understood the objective was killing wolves to increase the survival chances for moose.
And even if Haeg and gunner Tony Zellers were technically outside the control area, they were still operating within the boundaries of state Game Management Unit 19D, and the state calls these things "Game Management Units" for a reason.
What were Haeg and Zellers doing anyway but helping to manage the game in Unit 19D?
Unfortunately the state didn't see it that way. Under fire from animal activists upset about the aerial gunning of wolves, the state saw in Haeg a chance to demonstrate that you can't just let wolf-control run wild, to spin an old phrase from former Gov. Wally Hickel.
Still, in fairness to the Alaska state troopers and the state attorneys involved, it is near certain they too thought they were doing the right thing when they busted Haeg.
Everyone agreed Haeg broke the law. He shot nine wolves 20 to 30 miles outside the control area. He deserved to be punished for that.
Where the issue turned ugly was in deciding what punishment fit the crime. This is the reason the case is still making its way through the Alaska court system.
The state wanted make an example of David Haeg. It was supposed to be pretty simple:
They'd bust him. They'd make a big show of it by playing the press like a trophy king salmon, something at which law enforcement officials in this state are good.
Wolves shot 20 to 30 miles outside the control area became wolves shot up to 80 miles outside the control area. Haeg was portrayed as a rogue, out-of-control aerial wolf hunter to make it appear the state was keeping a close watch on these hunts, which is the biggest fraud in all this.
Haeg was supposed to take the publicity hit, hire a fixer to negotiate a plea deal and then just wait for everything to fade away.
That's the way these cases usually go down.
Haeg, for his part, played his role properly at the start. He hired a lawyer who specializes in plea-bargaining wildlife cases. A plea bargain was struck.
And then everything fell apart. Why isn't exactly clear.
State assistant attorney general Andrew Peterson said it was because Haeg didn't want to let the state take his airplane, a pricey Piper Super Cub specially outfitted for short-field landings.
"He didn't want to give it up," Peterson said.
But it isn't quite that simple.
The state had seized Haeg's airplane early in the investigation. State officials never bothered to tell him he had the right to protest that seizure and go before a judge to try to get the plane back while his case was adjudicated. When he finally found out, he got mad.
By then, he'd also lost a hunting season with its tens of thousand of dollars in business. He was watching his life drain away along with his money.
"All they had to do,'' he told the three, gray-haired judges of the appeals court in mid-May, "was write a little note on the search warrant: 'Mr. Haeg, you have the right to appeal it.' "
Instead, Haeg said, when he asked troopers how and when he might get his plane back, "the trooper told me I was never going to get my plane back."
Somewhere in there, the now 42-year-old Haeg decided the government -- our government -- was trying to railroad him, and he started fighting back. He hired two attorneys. When one seemed more interested in negotiating deals than battling for his case and the other couldn't do much to stop him from getting convicted, he got even madder.
He became his own lawyer, a one-man legal aid society cranking out the briefs and appeals. Four years after the wolf shooting, he is a man obsessed with his case.
But then, we all might be if you consider what happened to Haeg after the plea agreement went bust.
The state used what Haeg said in a five-hour, plea-agreement interview to put together a bunch of new charges. They didn't just go after him for violating the terms of the aerial wolf-control permit. They went after him for the crime of aerial hunting.
(Haeg makes an interesting argument that someone engaged in state-permitted wolf control isn't "hunting" because the state, in permitting the aerial gunning, specifically says it isn't hunting.)
The prosecutors saw it differently. To them, it looked like hunting, and they tried to tie it to the game management unit in which Haeg guides to make it appear he was doing wolf control to further his hunting business.
A trooper testified that Haeg killed the wolves in the game management unit where he has his hunting camps, but eventually recanted that testimony on cross-examination at Haeg's trail.
As Haeg pointed out to the appeals court, however, not even the judge appeared to hear. In taking away Haeg's guide license, and thus his business, for five years, the judge specifically cited the egregious act of Haeg illegally killing wolves in the area where he guides -- something which just didn't happen.
Haeg gets especially upset about this. He tosses the word "perjury" around a lot.
I don't know what to think about David Haeg. He and some of his friends have e-mailed me repeatedly over the years to plead his case. He's always sounded a bit paranoid.
He started a Web site to publicly air the case: alaskastateofcorruption.com. It appears a little paranoid too -- rambling and disjointed. Haeg is not a particularly eloquent man.
He is a big-game guide. He looked different in suit and tie before the appeals court judges in a sterile Anchorage courtroom, but he was clearly still a guy who would have been a lot more comfortable in the woods.
After his presentation, all by himself, without the aid of any of the attorneys he's come to detest, a lone man behind a wooden table bucking the system in what he believes to be a fight for what is right, Haeg broke down in tears.
I knew then even less than when I entered the court room. Some 50 or so people in attendance, though, had a distinct and communal opinion. After the judges walked out of the chambers, they stood up to applaud Haeg long and loud.
Poor state attorney Peterson had to sort of slink out of the chambers.
A colleague at the top of the stairway leading to the door, shook his hand -- a deserved thank you for arguing what has come to be a complicated and ugly case.
I was left knowing that I didn't like a lot of what I saw. I felt a little sorry for Haeg. I remember thinking mainly about the over-used phrase of an old friend: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
What Haeg was apparently trying to do in March of 2004 was help the state out with its dirty little business of manipulating wolf numbers. He got a little carried away, yes, but for that he deserves to lose his business for five years and his airplane?
If that's the case, what should be the punishment for those commercial fishermen who on any given day over the course of the Alaska summer stray outside the boundaries of carefully drawn fishing districts to snatch public resources worth tens of thousands of dollars?
Haeg wasn't making any money off shooting those wolves.
He was just a poor fool trying to help the state with its stated goal of reducing wolf numbers in the McGrath area. So far, it appears to have cost him about four years of his life.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Find him online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.