The calamity happened Sept. 30 at the popular Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship when a pair of anglers, Chase Cominsky of Hermitage, Pa., and Jake Runyan of Cleveland, Ohio, put their fish on the weigh-in scales. The only problem: the fish allegedly contained about 8 pounds of lead stuffed inside.
This complete lack of sportsmanship will generate feelings of anger, disappointment and disgust. But the story needs to be told. In addition to possible legal questions, it will likely trigger policy and operational reviews by fishing tourney committees and sponsors everywhere.
Below, my good friend and veteran writer, Jeff Frischkorn (retired Outdoor Editor of Ohio’s News Herald and current blogger for Ohio Outdoors, among others), has penned the following revealing account.
“Alleged Lake Erie Walleye Contest Scandal Opens Door to Possible What-If Legal Charges”
If countless, biting memes and angry venting by fellow Lake Erie walleye anglers weren’t enough, the two tournament fishermen at the vortex of an alleged cheating scandal may have the potential of facing criminal charges.
At issue is the participation of Chase Cominsky of Hermitage, Pa., and Jake Runyan of Cleveland, Ohio, in the Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship held Friday, Sept. 30 at Cleveland Metroparks’ Gordon Park. The event was supposed to run two days but severe and dangerous weather on Lake Erie cut the program to just one day.
When Cominsky and Runyan stepped onto the elevated weight-scale platform they were met by Jason Fisher, tournament director, performing the master-of-ceremony’s task and weighing in the five fish. However, news accounts confirm Fisher became suspicious of the pair’s walleye because the length of each of the five fish did not seem to jive with their combined weight of 33 pounds. Also, he said he felt “something hard” in one of the walleyes.
Fisher stepped off the platform and began gutting the walleye. All the while the process was being recorded on cell phones by anglers and spectators. When Fisher was finished, about eight pounds of lead sinkers were removed. Moreover, along with the weights were several fish fillets, presumably and allegedly used to keep the weights from either spilling out or helping to disguise the sound of the lead sinkers banging against each other.
The response from the crowd was expectedly harsh and threatening, with several bystanders verbally condemning Cominsky and Runyan, often including the use of profane and vulgar language. Cominsky and Runyan were disqualified, thereby forfeiting the prestigious event’s approximately $30,000 first place prize.
What followed was the pair leaving the park. In the subsequent days, countless memes on the alleged cheating appeared on social media platforms while a host of general media venues from many parts of the globe reported on the incident. And while anglers of many fishing persuasions have denounced what was seen and subsequently recorded, material collected at the weigh-in has been turned over to various law enforcement entities.
Likewise, two criminal defense attorneys have expressed their thoughts — hypothetically — as to some of the possible laws that might apply to this situation. It is vital to remember that as of this writing no charges have been filed against anyone, nor any arrests made, nor any court trial undertaken. In all respects, due process is the rule, a fact recognized by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“ODNR Wildlife officers responded after being contacted by tournament organizers,” reports the agency’s media chief, Sarah Wickham. “Officers collected evidence and are preparing a report for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. As this is an open investigation, we have no further comment at this time.”
That said, two Northeast Ohio criminal defense attorneys say that potential criminal charges are no laughing matter. Not according to the state’s Ohio Revised Code, anyway.
“I believe that the two (alleged) fraudsters could be charged with theft under Section 2913.02(A)(3), which deals with theft by deception. If the amount of the prize money exceeded $1000, it would be a felony — and the specific degree would depend on the amount of the prize money,” said attorney Adam VanHo of VanHo Law in Munroe, Ohio.
Similarly, criminal defense attorney Casey O’Brien, of Ibold & O’Brien Law in Chardon, Ohio, says that in addition to possible theft charges, the Ohio Revised Code has another potential tool in its criminal complaint toolbox.
“ORC 2915.05 - Cheating, corrupting sports - may be applicable,” O’Brien notes. “This charge could be anywhere from a Misdemeanor of the First degree to a Felony of the Fourth Degree if there are found to be prior offenses. I would imagine subsection (B)(2) may be applicable which entails ‘Engaging in conduct designed to corrupt the outcome of an athletic or sporting event.’”
Further, adds VanHo, if a case is made — again hypothetically — and the defendants were “not sent to prison, a judge could require that any term of probation include that they not be allowed to fish or have a fishing license.” Both VanHo and O’Brien agree that all of the pair’s fishing equipment, boat-motor-trailer and even their vehicles, could be seized as falling under being “criminal tools. “This could make the penalties cost the (alleged) fraudsters more than just normal fines and court costs,” VanHo says.
Finally, possible federal charges could be filed if it was found that the mails or the Internet were used in conjunction with any alleged offenses, O’Brien points out.