The bear appeared suddenly.
Tony Fabriger had spent five cold and wet days on Kodiak Island, home to the world's largest bears, with no sign of the fabled browns, not even a giant paw print in the spring snow.
The unpredictable Alaska weather, sunny when the float plane dropped him off at Karluk Lake on the south end of the island, had predictably turned bad. Winds of 80 miles an hour had ripped his base camp apart the day before.
On this afternoon -- May 7, 1986 -- Fabriger huddled in the wind and rain on a grassy hill and ate a sandwich, wondering if he'd made the trip too early in the year. Maybe the bears were slow in emerging from their winter dens.
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He'd been lucky, though, winning one of only a handful of state permits that year, picked through a drawing, for the spring bear hunt on Kodiak. It was Fabriger's first application for a permit; he knew people who had waited nearly 20 years for a chance at the coveted hunt.
An accomplished bowhunter, Fabriger had hoped to set a record for taking a bear with a bow. But on this day, he'd decided to leave the bow at camp, several miles away, while he scouted for signs.
He finished his lunch and set off down the slope. And there it was, the biggest bear Fabriger had ever seen, not 20 yards away.
"I was shocked," he says now, the image as stark in his mind as it was 15 years ago. "If I'd stayed there another 10 minutes, he would have walked right on by me.
"They are so huge. I was worried, too. Could I kill a big bear like this with a gun without being attacked?"
Fabriger dropped to a crouch, sheltered only by knee-high grass, praying the bear wouldn't see him, smell him. The 30.06 rifle he carried seemed too small for the job. And, lord, how he wanted the bow, the weapon he'd practiced with for nearly 10 years. But camp was miles away. And this was the only bear he'd seen in days.
He spotted some boulders off to the side and skittered over to them. Taking cover behind the rocks, he watched the bear.
"He was just snuffling around through the bushes, eating roots, I guess, or small plants. I think he was still a little bit dazed from crawling out of the den because they take several days to come out of it."
Fabriger waited. And waited. But the bear was taking his own sweet time coming around.
Finally, the bear started walking slowly toward him. And the moment of a lifetime was over in an instant.
"I just kind of stuck my head out and shot him in the neck. I didn't know how to shoot him, really. He fell immediately, but he was still alive, growling a little bit. He was hit. But I hate to see a poor animal suffering. So I shot him maybe five more times in the lungs.
"It still took him a while to die."
Struggling, semi-paralyzed and "kind of rolling," the bear slid down the snowy slope as it died, tumbling over a slight drop. It came to rest in a nest of boulders. All 1,200 pounds of it jammed in tight.
"It was almost impossible," Fabriger says. "I thought, 'Jesus Christ, I'm never going to get him.' I didn't expect anything like that."
The rest of the story is not really the kind of grand adventure that hunters tell in smoky taverns wrapped around a few beers. It's more a strange saga of misfortune, bad planning and a weird kind of perseverance that begins on a remote Alaskan hillside and ends in a Phoenix strip club.
Fabriger worked hard to get that bear. And he's determined to retrieve it from what would seem an unlikely final resting place -- the Great Alaskan Bush Co., the occasionally notorious nude bar on Grand Avenue west of downtown Phoenix.
The 10-foot-tall bear, a real trophy, has stood watch over the Bush Co.'s dance floor since the club opened in 1986; the bear came to Phoenix as part of a lease agreement between Fabriger and a friend of the club's former owner.
The taxidermist gave the bear a perpetual snarl; someone at the Bush Co. gave it a can of Coors that, for a while, anyway, it gripped in a lifeless right paw.
In the past decade, the Bush Co. has been through highly public battles with the state liquor board and numerous bankruptcies. Longtime owners Jack Cox and his mother, Edna, initially filed for bankruptcy in 1990; Edna died a few years later. New owners bought the bar and its assets in 1997, directly from the bankruptcy court after a long and tangled process that in itself was marked by allegations of financial shenanigans on the part of a trustee.
Through it all, despite Fabriger's best efforts, the bear has stayed put.
Since 1991, when the lease expired, Fabriger has been trying to get his bear back. He's hired attorneys -- although only in Alaska -- but he says they want "to squeeze me for money," which he says he doesn't have. Two wrote letters on his behalf, but then dropped the case.
He spent years writing his own letters to Bush Co. owners and attorneys; his files contain copies of the few responses he received. He says he's called the Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. And he's made four trips to Phoenix to visit his bear and seek its return; once he searched the bankruptcy files for legal word on the bear, and once he confronted the Bush Co. manager and attorney.
Prove it, they told him. Prove that it's your bear.
"I remember that guy," says Dan McCauley, a Phoenix lawyer who represents Richard and Andrea Gates, the Bush Co.'s current owners. "I told him to go to bankruptcy court and prove it to the court."
McCauley says Fabriger, who showed up at the club in January 2000, never produced any kind of paperwork documenting ownership.
"I guarantee you unequivocally, if he had shown me documents at the time that showed he owned this piece of property, we would have given it to him," McCauley says.
Now, McCauley says, the same is still true. If Fabriger can prove to the bankruptcy court that he is the rightful owner and the court erred in conveying the bear as an asset, "I'll give it to him," McCauley says.
It's likely Fabriger will finally be able to do just that.
Antonin "Tony" Fabriger was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. He eventually became a coal miner.
But he really wanted gold. So, after moving to the United States where he worked in the automotive business, he drifted north, to Alaska, where he hoped to mine gold. (There are many small gold mines, primarily placer operations, and family gold miners in Alaska.)
"I always wanted Alaska," he says, his slight accent giving away his European upbringing. "I'm a guy who likes the outdoors. And when I came to the United States, I said I wanted to dig the gold."
In 1984, he found himself in Fairbanks, working as an auto mechanic. He soon got a better job in Anchorage.
"I just stayed there and started hunting and fishing," Fabriger says. "I never did dig gold other than a little panning."
Fabriger had been an avid bowhunter since 1978. He lived in Portland, Oregon, then, and the owner of a Volkswagen he'd done a tune-up on offered to teach him.
In 1986, Fabriger put in for the Kodiak Island bear hunt and was thrilled when he won a spot.
"I just wanted the challenge," he says.
The trip, which he made alone when a friend backed out at the last minute, cost him about $1,500, he recalls, for outfitting and travel to the island, about 250 miles south of Anchorage. He was 38 years old and in excellent physical shape.
Fabriger took enough gear for a three-week stay, and spent the first few days hiking from his base camp to other parts of the island, looking for the elusive bears. He saw plenty of deer, fox and eagles, among other wild creatures, but no bears.
On the sixth day, he finally got what he'd come for.
Later, once he got the bear hide back to the town of Kodiak where it was tagged by state game officials and a "sealing certificate" was issued, he found out the animal was of trophy quality. The skull measured out a bit more than 18 inches long and more than 11 inches wide.
But first, he had to get the bear out of the rocks.
Fabriger says he spent hours trying to skin the bear in the rocks. He gave up when it got dark.
The next day, he hiked for several hours to reach a cannery where he borrowed a portable winch from the watchman. He headed back to the bear the next morning but broke the winch when he first tried to use it. Back to the cannery. Fix the winch. Back to the bear.
By this time, Fabriger says, dozens of eagles -- he counted perhaps as many as 40 -- had moved in and stripped most of the meat off the carcass. He'd slit the hide open so that the birds, which he'd seen eagerly hovering, wouldn't damage the hide.
When he got back to the bear the second time, "he was numb as a rock. It took two days of hard work to skin the bear."
Finally, he rolled up the hide and tied it with ropes to carry it back to his base camp, six miles away.
Only it was too heavy to carry. (Later, he found it weighed 179 pounds.) He made it about 100 feet, he says, and decided "this was not going to work."
So he rolled it downhill, all the way down the slope to the beach, about a half-mile away, carrying it over rough spots.
Several hours later, he was back at the cannery again, this time to call his pilot to pick him up, with the hide, at the beach. Except the weather was terrible, raining, snowing, 60-mile-an-hour winds. He couldn't get through to the airport, and the pilot wouldn't have flown, anyway.
So, despite the cannery watchman's warnings not to go out in such foul weather, he borrowed a small open skiff with an outboard motor. Fabriger says he was in a hurry to get the hide somewhere it could be refrigerated because he hadn't done a very good job scraping the fat off and salting it. He was afraid the fur would fall off.
He managed to get back to the hide safely, the 17-foot skiff with its 35-horsepower outboard barely making it through six-foot waves. He got the hide aboard, but the lagoon he was in was too shallow to use the outboard. But he couldn't get into deep enough water just by pushing off; the waves kept driving him back to the beach.
So Fabriger took off all his clothes and swam the boat out past the waves. Nearly frozen, he scrambled aboard only to find he'd broken the steering handle off the outboard.
"I had to wrap my arms around the motor to steer the skiff. That was okay, though, because it was warm and I was freezing."
Once in the open water, he put his clothes back on. But the waves were too much. They kept crashing over the bow.
About halfway back, things got so bad that Fabriger decided he'd better get ashore. He ran the boat up on the beach near a cabin. Inside, he found dry clothes and managed to get a fire going. Then he slept.
The next morning, the weather was better and he made it back to the cannery (but not before the engine died partway there, and he had to clean the spark plugs and get some water out of the fuel line to get the motor going again). He and the watchman weighed the hide, then put it in the cannery's cooler.
The next morning, he hiked back to his base camp for the last time. He packed his gear and waited for the pilot to pick him up. They made a stop at the cannery for the hide and skull, then flew to the Kodiak airport where state game officials inspected the hide and certified that he, Antonin Fabriger, was indeed the proud owner of a very large Kodiak brown bear.
Back in Anchorage, Fabriger took the hide to AAA Taxidermy. He could have it made into a rug, or he could have it mounted, a much more expensive proposition.
Fabriger says he didn't have the $3,000 for the mount. So the taxidermist suggested he find a sponsor, someone who would pay for the mount in exchange for being able to display the bear. The taxidermist put him in touch with a man named Wayne Carpenter, who at the time ran a small museum in downtown Anchorage, the Alaska Wildlife & Natural History Museum. (Carpenter couldn't be located to discuss this story.)
But it was Bush Co. owner Jack Cox who actually paid for the mount.
In 1986, Jack and Edna Cox were well-known in Alaska as owners of the Great Alaskan Bush Co., a place an Anchorage newspaper once deemed "the most famous strip joint on the last frontier."
They were about to open a branch in Phoenix, and the huge stuffed bear was perfect for the new club.
Fabriger didn't know it, but the Coxes were gaining notoriety in Arizona as well, according to newspaper reports. For years, Jack Cox was investigated for narcotics trafficking, racketeering and fraud by state and federal law enforcement agencies; as he puts it: "Nothing ever stuck." Still, a previous felony conviction stemming from an Alaska case kept him from getting a liquor license for the new Bush Co.
"I'd wanted to have some Alaskan-type artifacts to add some flavor to the concept," says Cox, who's now working as a legal aide in Phoenix. (Cox passed the Arizona Bar Exam, but his license has been held up by the character committee of the state bar association.)
Cox says he doesn't remember all the details surrounding the bear, but says it was agreed that if he paid for the taxidermy, he could keep the bear in Phoenix for a few years. "When that period expired, he was to come and get the bear," Cox says.
Fabriger has a copy of a five-year "personal property lease," dated November 13, 1986, signed by himself and Carpenter. The lease values the bear at $20,000 and states that the bear will be kept at the club on Grand Avenue in Phoenix.
"I knew it was going to be shipped to Arizona," says Fabriger, "but I didn't know the trickery involved."
Fabriger got $1,000 under the lease, which also allowed Cox or Carpenter to renew the arrangement for another five years -- and another $1,000.
At Fabriger's insistence, Carpenter paid for a $20,000 insurance policy for the bear, which listed the Bush Co. as the insured party. Later, the Bush Co. itself bought insurance on the bear, records show.
In 1990, Carpenter closed the wildlife museum and moved, apparently out of Anchorage. Fabriger never heard from him again.
In 1991, the lease expired. Fabriger says he never heard from Cox about renewing the lease. Letters to Cox from Fabriger's attorney were not answered.
Cox says he remembers "there were some problems" reaching Fabriger. "There was a time when he left some messages and I remember when I tried to call him back I had some difficulty getting ahold of him," Cox says.
In 1992, Fabriger was seriously injured in a car accident. He says he could no longer work, and moved to a small town in Washington state, near the Hood River, where life was cheaper.
He continued to write to the Bush Co., demanding the return of his bear. He never got an answer and didn't find out until later about the pending bankruptcy.
In 1997, when the Gateses took over ownership of the club and its assets, Fabriger began writing to Dan McCauley, the Gateses' attorney. He says he initially received a letter saying the Gateses had purchased the assets through bankruptcy court.
But, Fabriger says, subsequent letters in which he tried to point out that neither Cox nor the court was lawfully in possession of the bear were ignored.
Then, in January 2000, Fabriger showed up at the club with a friend of his. McCauley says they told the manager the friend was a federal agent with authority to seize the bear.
McCauley told the bar manager to call the police because he wanted any taking of the bear to be overseen by authorities. McCauley hurried down to the bar, too, and found the police talking not to an employee of a federal law enforcement agency but to someone who identified himself as a "U.S. Constitutional Ranger."
"I asked the police to arrest him for misrepresenting himself," McCauley says. "But they just said he was nuts, that he was a relatively harmless person."
Fabriger says he's not clear what a U.S. Constitutional Ranger does, but that he knows it is not a federal law enforcement job and that neither he nor his friend meant to imply that it was. "Not too many people know too much about it," he says. "It's got nothing to do with the federal government."
McCauley says the only document Fabriger showed him was "a deal with a museum in Alaska."
"There was no link, no chain of custody, from him to that bear," McCauley says.
"If he proves to bankruptcy court that they improperly conveyed an asset, then we'll deal with it then."
So how does someone prove he owns a bear?
"Having the sealing certificate would certainly seem like proof of ownership to me," says Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Alaska law prohibits the sale of a bear, including the hide or a mount. So there would be no way Cox or Carpenter could claim legal possession.
It took Bartley just a few minutes to look up Fabriger's old certificate in state files. The original certificate, bearing Fabriger's name, the date of the kill and other information, is still on record. It's signed by both Fabriger and the state official who inspected the hide.
Fabriger still has the other copy. It's become part of the mammoth file he's compiled over the years.
"It's definitely his bear," says Jack Cox. "I believe he's entitled to it back."
Cox says he's happy to testify or give a deposition in any legal action Fabriger brings to recover the bear.
The irony of that is not lost on Fabriger, who notes that he tried for 10 years to get ahold of Cox and that neither Cox nor anyone from the Bush Co. ever tried to call him to tell him the bear should be picked up.
"I don't trust those people," Fabriger says now. "I am not going to go through that anymore. I want that bear."
Now, Fabriger may have to petition the bankruptcy court to reopen the old case.
If that doesn't work, Fabriger's only recourse -- short of convincing McCauley and the Gateses to just give it back -- would be to take them to court.
"I am definitely going to work on it 'til I get my bear back," he says, although once he gets it, he's not sure what to do with it. He says he'd like to find a museum or organization that would display the trophy, "something to do with sporting or hunting."
"I never thought I would have to hunt this bear twice," he says. "I almost froze to death the first time, but that was easy compared to what I've been going through."
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