Watchdog

For 14 years, people claimed an Idaho businessman stole from them. Nothing happened.

How did so many state and local authorities overlook Craig Fletcher’s alleged misconduct?

Telara Oliver was so excited to lead a fishing trip in the remote wilds of Alaska that she ignored the signs that something was amiss.

Oliver had been a river guide in Idaho for six years when she met Keith “Craig” Fletcher in Boise and signed on to work for his company, Crazy Coho River Adventures.

“It’s a really prestigious opportunity” to guide in Alaska, she said. “And Craig put me in a lead guide position, which is really uncommon for women.”

So in 2010, she and other guides made a 2,500-mile road trip to their destination in Alaska, with boats and equipment in tow, she said.

They arrived to find no lodging.

“He had us camp out alongside the road with all of the equipment and people,” Oliver told the Statesman in an interview. “Essentially, he was running operations off the side of the road, on a creek we were not told we would be guiding on.”

She was sent out with “a rough map” to scout the waterway before leading a trip, she said.

“I later found out, after takeout, that we were camping next to bear-baited sites,” she said. The whole setup was full of “things that just didn’t make sense. It just didn’t seem legal, or right.”

Oliver’s concerns are echoed in complaints against Fletcher-owned companies that date back more than a decade, an investigation by the Statesman found.

Former employees, customers and other business owners have reported Fletcher and his businesses to authorities in Alaska and Idaho since at least 2005. Their reports — filed with at least seven different agencies — often languished or were closed with minimal consequences for Fletcher. Meanwhile, he created new businesses, recruited new staff and marketed to new customers.

These agencies heard complaints about Fletcher: the Idaho Department of Labor, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Idaho Industrial Commission, Boise County Sheriff’s Office, Boise County Prosecutor’s Office and the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board. A former employee said he filed a complaint to the Idaho State Tax Commission, but the commission’s record-keeping policy makes it impossible to find the complaint. A commission spokeswoman said all complaints are reviewed for further action.

The complaints illustrate how agencies that are entrusted with protecting workers, consumers and the public can allow more than a decade of strikingly similar allegations to fall through the cracks.

One agency couldn’t act because it was too understaffed. One decided the complaint was a civil matter, for the parties to work out on their own. One closed a case because Fletcher wasn’t running a company at the time.

The most significant action to date is a lawsuit by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, filed in July against Fletcher, his wife Crystal and their company Access Life’s Adventures. The lawsuit says the defendants took about $190,000 from dozens of customers for trips to Alaska and Hawaii that they “failed to provide,” in many cases canceling at the last minute and never giving refunds.

Fletcher on Friday responded to the attorney general’s lawsuit, overall denying the allegations against him and requesting a jury trial.

Access Life’s Adventures website 1
The Access Life’s Adventures website advertised the company’s guided fishing and hunting trips in Alaska, as well as Hawaii, Oregon and Texas. This is a screen capture of an archived version of the website. Screen capture from the Wayback Machine, archive.org

The lawsuit is a civil action, not a criminal charge. The Idaho AG’s office doesn’t look at fraud allegations for possible criminal prosecution, because it can’t. The Idaho Legislature has given the attorney general that power only in limited circumstances.

In Idaho, that power goes to local law enforcement. Police and sheriffs are in charge of criminal cases, so they must look at something like a bounced check and decide whether to investigate it as a white-collar crime. The prosecutor’s office then must decide what charges to file.

In some other states, the attorney general does have the ability to investigate a possible crime. In Utah, the attorney general even has a special white-collar and commercial law enforcement division.

Fletcher’s attorney, Matthew Taylor of Taylor Law in Boise, told the Statesman that Fletcher would not comment for this story. Fletcher did not respond to a voicemail message and an email this week asking him to respond to complaints filed against him and his companies over the past 14 years.

Fletcher previously told the Statesman that complaints stemmed from problems outside of his control, misunderstandings and uncooperative customers and ex-employees. He claimed in a letter to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office that his accusers were trying to “destroy our business, reputation and to extort extra money from us.”

Fletcher told the Statesman he could provide documents and references to back up his side of the story, but he never did.

“There’s a lot of gray in this,” he told the Statesman in August. “I’m not perfect by any means, but I’m trying to make things right.”

Fletcher’s businesses have left a trail of angry customers and employees.

“If there was one or two people, OK, maybe there were some mistakes made and promises broken,” said Justin Fordice, a Washington resident. “But this, I’m sorry to say, the bulk of people and victims, it is clear there was a pattern.”

Fordice paid $4,400 for a family trip to Alaska. The Fletchers canceled it days before departure. By then, it had been 10 years since customers and employees began filing official complaints about Fletcher’s Alaskan fishing trips.

“It’s just a civil (dispute), it’s just one or two people, it’s just Alaska. At what point are you going to categorize this as significant enough to act?” Fordice said.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

This story is based on more than 600 pages of public records, and interviews with more than 20 people. The Statesman also reviewed correspondence and documents provided by interviewees. Reporter Audrey Dutton called and emailed agencies in Alaska and Idaho to confirm, or get copies of, each complaint in this story and to learn the outcomes of those complaints.

Cases closed: Unpaid wages, bounced checks, no insurance

The Statesman has found more than 30 cases of people accusing Fletcher of taking or withholding money from them. Some said they tried to collect the money for weeks or months, while Fletcher delayed, ignored or threatened to sue them.

According to public records and interviews, Fletcher has:

  • Written numerous bad checks.
  • Operated at least one guided fishing outfit in Alaska without a license.

  • Broken an agreement to buy a Garden Valley whitewater rafting business, leaving it with more than $100,000 in losses and expenses, the owners say.
  • Been accused by at least 13 workers in Alaska and Idaho of failing to pay them.
  • Failed to make payroll tax payments, according to lien records.
  • Cost his customers at least $190,000 for adventure trips he didn’t provide.
  • Broken labor laws, according to an Alaska labor investigator. Fletcher told the investigator he disputed that finding, but failed to produce evidence he claimed would back up his defense.
  • Sent customers on whitewater rafting trips on the Payette River with unlicensed guides, and without all the necessary insurance.

James Hastings worked for Fletcher at Alaska River Sports in 2007, doing marketing and scheduling. He’d just retired from the Army and wanted to do something fun: go fishing for a living. Fletcher offered him 50% of the company and added him as a co-owner, Hastings said.

The fishing was bad that year, but Fletcher continued to sell trips, Hastings said. Hastings wasn’t given access to the books to see how much money was coming in and going out, he said, but he got calls about bills not being paid.

Then, one day, Hastings got a call from the state about payroll taxes. Fletcher had told Hastings that Alaska River Sports employees were independent contractors, he said.

“So when I was getting calls from state of Alaska about payroll, it was sort of a shock,” he said.

Public records show that employees have filed unpaid-wage complaints against Fletcher for about 12 years.

The Idaho Industrial Commission in 2015 and 2018 also took complaints that Fletcher didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance for river guides. (Searchable databases for Idaho and Alaska show no insurance.) The commission closed both cases — in the 2015 case, because Fletcher was no longer operating the business; and in the 2018 case, because the company “did not have any Idaho employees and did not violate any laws in Idaho,” a commission spokesman said.

River guide Mark Abel worked for Access Life’s Adventures last year and filed a wage complaint to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in August 2018.

Access Life’s Adventures brochure.JPG
A wild sheep conservation group’s auction last year included this Alaskan fishing trip, donated by Access Life’s Adventures. The person who won the package filed a complaint to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, saying he paid a $2,900 deposit to add family members to his trip but, when he tried to book the trip, couldn’t reach the company or its owners. Public record from Idaho Attorney General's Office

The department sent Fletcher and his wife a notice to pay Abel $7,066 — his wages, plus liquidated damages for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime.

The investigator on Abel’s case spent months trying to resolve the claim as Fletcher stalled for time, the records showed. She sent Fletcher an email in December 2018, telling him, “These are not the type of matters that if left ignored, will simply go away. Please send in documentation ASAP.”

But the matter did go away.

The Alaska labor department closed Abel’s case in July, putting it in his hands to pursue himself.

“Efforts to engage Mr. Fletcher in discussion to resolve your matter have repeatedly been unsuccessful,” the department told Abel. “Our difference in location has been an inhibitor as well. Unfortunately, due to severe staffing and budget shortages, our office does not currently have nor expect to have in the future the resources required to pursue this matter in court on your behalf.”

The investigator for Abel’s claim told him their office had “many claims that are several years old which must be prioritized.” She urged him to consider suing for unpaid wages and travel costs.

“At this point I strongly believe that you will find the fastest and best resolution through Idaho’s small claims court,” she told Abel. “You are your best witness and Craig has not provided any documentation to our office to support his arguments.”

Fletcher to police: No intent to deceive

Several workers called police on Fletcher in 2015, alleging check fraud. They had worked for him in Garden Valley, where he had a whitewater rafting operation that summer.

A deputy from the Boise County Sheriff’s Office took statements from the employees and six bounced checks as evidence.

“Please prosecute him to the farthest extent of the law, so maybe he learns that he cannot treat people the way that he does,” one employee wrote to the deputy.

Fletcher wrote the deputy a letter, saying, “It is true that I have had 5 checks bounce that I have written. It is a result of a merchant services conflict. There is no intent to deceive or harm others financially. ... I am aggressively trying to resolve the matter by trying to obtain a biz loan and also have been working a job in which I should be able to get these checks resolved soon. These individuals also went to the Idaho dept of labor and we are also using them to help resolve this unfortunate matter.”

The deputy in June 2016 told one of the employees that the Boise County Prosecutor’s Office had deemed it a “civil issue.”

The prosecutor’s office was unable to find records related to that decision, after the Statesman requested them. But the Sheriff’s Office records show the complaint as “unfounded.” (Those offices are no longer led by the prosecutor and sheriff who were in charge in 2015. Legal staff in the prosecutor’s office has completely turned over since then as well.)

Jay Rosenthal, a deputy prosecutor in Boise County at the time, said he remembers one of the bounced checks. It was made out to Dustin Sifford for more than $5,000.

Sifford managed Idaho Whitewater LLC, which Fletcher had just started that year. Fletcher offered to let Sifford buy into the company for $25,000 — either up front or by covering expenses along the way. So Sifford paid for many of the operating costs that summer, he told the Statesman. Fletcher walked away from the business.

Their agreement was never put in writing.

The bounced check to Sifford “potentially could have been a criminal charge,” Rosenthal said. “We viewed it as a partnership dispute.”

Sifford said the experience left him with “a lack of confidence in my local government.”

The Boise County Prosecutor’s Office “knew about it and decided to leave me with a lawsuit that I couldn’t possibly afford to pursue on my own, even though it could have been a criminal charge, and then the state or the county could have helped me with it,” he said.

Stranded in Alaska, camping with bears

It wasn’t the kind of adventure Samuel Vetter expected when he signed up to work as a fishing guide in Alaska. But four months later, he made it home to Utah with a story to tell.

Vetter arrived in Alaska in May 2010 and met up with seven other Crazy Coho River Adventures guides.

“(Fletcher) had an entire season of guests booked, then disappeared within a week of the scheduled start of our season, and we never saw him again,” Vetter told the Statesman. “He disappeared while we were out on the river. We finished our weeklong trip, only to land our rafts at the river takeout and find no one there to pick us and the guests up. We were all stranded.”

The customers were “extremely irate” that their vacation package wasn’t as advertised, Vetter said. The gourmet meals were actually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, “and slim pickings of cheap canned foods for dinner,” he said. But they were sympathetic to the guides, who did their best to cobble together a halfway decent trip, he said.

Fletcher eventually sent money to one guide, to split among the crew, Vetter said. It amounted to about $150 per person, he said.

“We had to make our way to some place we could hustle up jobs just to earn enough to survive and slowly save for tickets home,” he told the Statesman.

Vetter and four other guides traveled to Talkeetna — an Alaska hamlet known for, among other things, having a cat as a mayor. They crashed for a month at a hostel there, then met a couple who invited them to house-sit for a while, Vetter said.

“That saved us from having no option but to camp at a hostel while finding odd jobs to earn enough to get home,” Vetter said.

It took until September — four months after arriving in Alaska — to get home to Utah, he said.

The thought of contacting authorities crossed his mind, Vetter said, but he was too focused on trying to get home. He also wanted to believe that Fletcher had a good reason for leaving Alaska so abruptly and not paying them.

“I was expecting some kind of explanation,” Vetter said. “I wanted to believe the guy, and I was horribly naïve.”

Oliver, the guide from Boise, quit the job within a couple of weeks. She didn’t file any official complaints or contact authorities — partly because she blamed herself for taking the job, and partly because she didn’t know how much good it would do.

Another guide who worked with Fletcher that summer described the job as “horrific and stupid and hilarious all at the same time.”

At least one Crazy Coho River Adventures employee that year did file a complaint to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It was closed without payment, leaving the employee to pursue the money on their own.

Idaho Whitewater owner: ‘I don’t trust anybody’ after Fletcher

John “JB” and Georgianna “Georgi” Lawler opened their whitewater rafting company in Garden Valley more than 20 years ago. Idaho Whitewater Unlimited is a small operation, tucked in the woods along the Middle Fork of the Payette River.

08xxfletcherJBpaperwork
John “JB” Lawler sorts through stacks of legal documents that he thought would protect him and his wife, Georgianna, in a business transaction that went sour in 2015. The Lawlers had planned to sell Idaho Whitewater Unlimited Inc. and start a new chapter in their lives, they said, but the deal they made with Keith “Craig” Fletcher fell apart and left them with tax liens, a black mark on their license and thousands of dollars in expenses. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Several years ago, they decided to sell the company and listed it with a local real estate agent. Craig Fletcher made an offer in January 2015, and they signed a contract that April.

Fletcher formed a new company, called Idaho Whitewater LLC, and soon began to sell rafting trips.

What happened over the next few months would fuel multiple complaints to state and local authorities. It took 23 single-spaced pages for the Lawlers to explain what happened in a letter to police and prosecutors.

The Lawlers said Fletcher sent people out on whitewater rafting trips without the required license or insurance, and “pilfered” more than $100,000 from their business, which included selling one-third of their fleet of boats.

The Lawlers went to the Boise County Sheriff’s Office, hoping to have charges brought against Fletcher, they said. They handed over a stack of papers, including the 23-page description of what transpired that year.

The sheriff’s staff could find no record of that police report.

But the deputy who took their complaint — who no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office — gave the case to the Boise County prosecutor to review.

The prosecutor who reviewed it was Rosenthal.

“I have spent considerable time reviewing the documents and recap of events concerning the dealings between Mr. Lawler and Mr. Fletcher in the sale of IWU,” Rosenthal later wrote in a letter to the deputy. “I see no basis for criminal charges. This is a civil matter involving a contractual dispute. It appears both parties have civil counsel who I’m sure will advise them on how to proceed. I am returning the documents to you.”

Rosenthal sat down with the Statesman and some of the documents, in an effort to piece together his thought process at the time. He said he would reach the same conclusion today, based on the evidence he was given.

It appeared to be a civil dispute, he said, “and we simply, never in a million years, would deal with that.”

08xxfletchercopier
Photos of happy clients line the walls of Idaho Whitewater Unlimited Inc., as Georgianna Lawler makes copies of paperwork from a debacle that ensued when Craig Fletcher tried to buy the business a few years ago. She and husband John “JB” Lawler have worked to get Idaho Whitewater Unlimited back on its feet after thinking they had sold it. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

The Lawlers say they would still like to move on from Idaho Whitewater Unlimited and into the next chapter in their lives.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had several people interested in buying the business,” Georgi Lawler said. But she thinks, “Am I supposed to trust you?’ You know, and I hate that feeling. I hate it. I’m not that kind of person. But I don’t trust anybody.”

The year that JB Lawler, Georgi Lawler and several of Fletcher’s employees went to the sheriff, there were 273 crime reports in Boise County. All of those complaints flowed through a small office with no detectives, and a prosecutor’s office with two or three lawyers.

“The last thing I told the cops was, it’s in your hands now,” said Georgi Lawler, “because he’s gonna do it again.”

Up the Payette River without a license

The whitewater debacle eventually made its way to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board.

For that board, licensing can be a matter of life and death. The licensing process requires training and insurance, among other things, because of how dangerous it can be to lead customers on outdoor adventures.

“If you look at the amount of drownings we’ve had this year on classified (whitewater) rivers, and even unclassified, the rivers are ever-changing and there are a lot of dangerous snags,” said Lori Thomason, the board’s executive director. “Sometimes there are rock slides that will change the way the river has been. Outfitters send their guides down daily, they make sure that the guides are properly trained, the outfitters are properly insured and bonded, and (trained) to provide the proper safety to the public.”

Each customer expects that if they’re going down Class II or III rapids, “those guides are going to know how to get me down the river the safest,” Thomason said. “First aid, CPR, if the raft overturns they know how to turn it back over ...”

The board ruled in March 2016 that Craig Fletcher hired unlicensed guides to lead trips for Idaho Whitewater Unlimited, in the process of taking it over.

By that time, Fletcher was gone from the business. The board put on record that had violated the rules by hiring unlicensed guides. And they penalized JB Lawler because the violations happened under his company. The board fined Lawler but reissued his license so he could reclaim the business.

“I don’t expect to get a dime back,” Georgi Lawler told the Statesman last month. “But he needs to be put away.”

Hastings, who worked with Fletcher on Alaska River Sports in Wasilla, wishes the man could be banned from starting another business.

The Idaho attorney general’s lawsuit seeks to do that — at least in part. The AG is asking the court to ban the Fletchers from advertising or selling “vacation packages involving guided fishing, hunting or sightseeing excursions.”

It doesn’t mention other endeavors — for example, running a whitewater rafting business.

The lawsuit is pending. Fletcher hasn’t yet filed his defense.

“He’s got to be stopped,” Hastings said. “And until someone makes him stop, he’s not going to stop doing this.”

Editor’s notes: Jolene Maloney was Boise County prosecutor during the Idaho Whitewater LLC complaints. Reporter Audrey Dutton’s husband worked for Maloney a few years later, on unrelated cases. In addition, this story was updated Sept. 16, 2019, to include Fletcher’s response to the attorney general’s lawsuit.

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Watchdog reporter Audrey Dutton joined the Statesman in 2011. Before that, she covered finance policy in Washington, D.C., during the financial crisis. She also worked as a reporter in Maryland, Minneapolis and New York. Audrey hails from Twin Falls.
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