When news spread Thursday that a pair of respected Eureka biologists were arrested for their alleged roles in an elaborate embezzlement scheme, the reaction was stunned disbelief.

Many in the biology community contacted on Friday -- before information contained in the search warrant affidavits outlining the investigation was reported in the Times-Standard -- declined to comment for this story, saying they didn't want to get involved and preferred to let the legal process run its course.

All, however, said the two men's reputations are beyond reproach.

”With all the work they have done over many years -- and Mad River Biologists has set a very high standard for intellectual and financial integrity -- I have no doubt that when this finishes up, they will be found not to have done anything wrong,” said C.J. Ralph, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

”There is no way that this is even possible,” Ralph continued, echoing the sentiments of many who believe Del Norte District Attorney's Office investigators must have made a mistake when they secured arrest warrants for biologists Sean McAllister and Ron LeValley.

McAllister and LeValley were arrested Thursday on $1 million warrants accusing them of burglary, embezzlement and conspiracy to commit a crime. The Del Norte County District Attorney's Office is alleging that the two biologists participated in an embezzlement scheme headed by former Yurok Tribe Forestry Director Roland Raymond that bilked the tribe out of nearly $1 million over the course of more than one year.

Though a warrant was also issued for his arrest, Raymond remained at large as of Saturday afternoon.

In the close-knit world of North Coast biologists, news of McAllister's and LeValley's arrests was stunning, not just because the allegations targeted two of their own but more so because of who those two are.

Both are fixtures on the North Coast, having been here for more than 20 years. Well known among birders, both are members of the county's exclusive 400 Club, reserved for bird-watching enthusiasts who have recorded 400 or more species while out in the field. And, according to those around them, both men's professional reputations were beyond reproach, with both earning a good living for doing what they loved.

LeValley, 65, is the founder of Mad River Biologists, a biological consulting firm that has done extensive work in its 30 years based in Eureka. A graduate of Humboldt State University's masters program in biology, LeValley prides himself as a professional wildlife photographer -- boasting a collection of more than 90,000 images on his website -- and has shown his work across the North Coast.

According to the Humboldt 400 Club website, LeValley began birding in Humboldt County while stationed here for 12 weeks during his service with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1970.

His work is so well respected that he was chosen recently to be a member of the Marine Life Protection Act's science advisory team, serving as its bird expert.

McAllister, a 45-year-old associate biologist with Mad River Biologists, is a more recent addition to the wildlife consulting world but has still been at it for two decades, specializing in local threatened and endangered species.

He started working with Mad River Biologists in 1995 and attended HSU. Also a member of the Humboldt 400 Club, McAllister began birding in 1992, and it quickly developed into a passion. On the site, he lists his favorite birding location as the Eel River Delta, near his home.

When it comes to Raymond, it appears he was also widely respected -- having worked for the Yurok Tribe, of which he is a member, for more than 15 years and been named its “Director of the Year” in 2009.

Humboldt County Coroner Dave Parris, who worked as the Yurok Tribal Police chief for two years until taking the coroner's position in 2009, said he remembers Raymond from his time with the tribe and said news of the allegations against him came as a shock.

”When I was up there, he treated me with the utmost respect, and he was well respected within the group that was up there at the time,” Parris said. “He was a hard worker.”

Tribal officials declined to comment on Raymond or his employment with the tribe but said that the tribe's priority is to allow the process to proceed. Officials said they don't want to compromise the investigation or the prosecution surrounding these issues.

For many, the reputations of those involved make the allegations all the harder to digest.

The Del Norte District Attorney's Office is alleging that, under the direction of Raymond, Mad River Biologists billed the tribe for almost $900,000 of northern spotted owl surveying work on tribal lands that was never performed. An affidavit in support of a search warrant filed by district attorney investigator A.C. Field indicates there is a long paper trail supporting the allegations, complete with checks from the tribe cashed by McAllister, receipts of large cash withdrawals, transfers to LeValley's personal account and checks sent from LeValley to Raymond.

For his part, Ralph said he doesn't believe it.

”I am 100 percent convinced that nothing happened,” he said. “I think the DA just way overreached.”

Ralph said he's known LeValley for 30 years and McAllister for more than a decade. He said both men have a strong reputation within the industry of putting the environment first and telling their clients the facts, not just what they want to hear.

”Their standards are as high as anybody, and I've dealt with hundreds of biological consultants in my years of being a scientist and working for the federal government,” Ralph said. “They have the highest professional standards, and they care much more about doing a quality job than about how much they get paid. They're the model that I hold up when I give talks about the roles of environmental consultants.”

Robert Hewitt, a wildlife biologist with LBJ Enterprises, said he has known McAllister and LeValley for about 20 years and was stunned to hear of their arrests. He said he's hoping for the best.

”We're just waiting to see and hoping it might not be as severe as it sounds initially up front with the way the media can get ahold of things,” Hewitt said. “But I'm stunned, because I've worked with these guys over many years.”

Hewitt said he's always known McAllister and LeValley to be “relaxed and easy-going” guys who were friendly and widely respected for their “top-quality” work. Unfortunately, he said, true or not, the allegations cast a pall over the industry the two men have dedicated much of their lives to.

”Biologists aren't licensed, so integrity is key,” Hewitt said. “It's all on trust -- if we lose the trust, that's it. It's just a shame because -- good, bad or indifferent -- this will reflect badly on the profession as a whole.

”The quality of biological work in our area is going to get called into question, which is a shame, because I can't think of a place where more significant work is done,” Hewitt continued. “This is not how we operate.”


Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or tgreenson@times-standard.com.