Back in June of 2017, I told you all about a major poaching ring in Ohio. Well, I actually told you about two cases in my blog post, Ohio Poaching: A Tale of Two Stories. This is the follow up to case number one in that post, and it is the wrap up to the largest poaching case in the 146-year history of the Ohio DNR’s Division of Wildlife.
I am not going to go into full details here; just a quick recap. You can go back and read my original post here. However, many more names have now been released, and some of the ones listed when the news originally broke are not mentioned in the new release from the Ohio DNR. The case has been dubbed as Operation North Coast, and it spans a 2.5-year time frame beginning in 2013 and culminating in 2016.
Most of this case revolves around the illegal taking of Lake Erie sportfish and whitetail deer, and then the illegal sales of meat from the harvests. Ohio counties involved in the investigation include Cuyahoga, Lorain, Lucas, Richland, Ottawa and Wood counties. Lots of man hours and time have been put into Operation North Coast with around 200 interviews, the review of thousands of documents, physical and digital evidence, and let’s not forget the nearly 100 court hearings. That’s right! This case was taken very seriously. Among the evidence seized in this case were 96 deer and turkey mounts, 35 sets of antlers, more than 200 pounds of filleted sportfish, 400 pounds of de-boned venison and processed deer meat, and vehicles.
One defendant in Wood County, along with 8 in Cuyahoga county were charged with operating a criminal ring. The 9 defendants were accused of illegally taking deer, failing to tag harvests, creating false harvest records by having other people check the deer in, and laundering in deer meat by having the venison processed into smokies and then using them for bartering.
Over a 2-year course, 3 of the defendants from Cuyahoga County, John Zayac, John Stofan and Terrance Ankrom harvested 39 deer with 22 of those being bucks. The bag limit in Ohio is 1 buck per season. The men would have other family members and friends check the deer in for them, creating false harvest records. The deer were then de-boned and given to Zayac who would then take the meat to Smokin’ Ts, a meat processor in Ashtabula County. It is estimated that around 2,000 pounds of boneless venison were processed by Todd Neczeporenko, the owner of Smokin’ Ts.
Okay, let’s get to what really matters here, the punishment. Plea agreements were reached for each of the men, with the following penalties:
John Zayac was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution, forfeited a truck and 44 of 54 of the seized deer mounts, and had his hunting privileges revoked for 7 years.
John Stofan was ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution, forfeited 31 of the 35 deer mounts seized form him, and lost his hunting privileges for 5 years.
Terrance Ankrom was ordered to $6,800 in restitution, forfeited a truck, and lost his hunting privileges for 5 years.
Todd Neczeporenko of Smokin’ Ts pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution.
Now, let’s move on to Mandon Freeworth of Wood County. Freeworth, just like the men from Cuyahoga county was charged with illegally killing deer and falsifying harvest records. In total, Freeworth was charged with 10 felonies and 6 misdemeanors. The felony charges include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, felony sales of wildlife, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle, tampering with records and drug abuse. And, the misdemeanors are as follows: possessing weapons while intoxicated, licensing violations, improper handling of a firearm and three counts of selling venison. Freeworth pleaded guilty to 10 of the 16 charges and was ordered to serve 22 months in prison. He also paid $5,513.03 in restitution and lost his hunting and trapping privileges until the year 2035. Twenty-one associates of Mr. Freeworth were also charged with 39 misdemeanor crimes including providing false information to the division’s game check system, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, tampering with records, hunting without permission, and illegally purchasing the poached meat.
Next up, Lorain County where Dennis and Andrew Urig were charged with the felony sale of venison from their store. Just like the previous cases, these men pleaded guilty. Dennis Urig paid $3,663.30 and lost his hunting and fishing privileges for six years. Andrew Urig was ordered to pay $1,340 and lost his hunting and fishing privileges for three years.
This is where things start turning fishy. Literally. This case also takes place in Lorain County, and revolves around defendants Carl Taylor, Jr. and Alexander Lenz. The 2 men are charged with selling over 100 pounds of sport caught walleye, perch, and white bass to investigators, which is a felony. Taylor pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $10,700 in restitution and lost his fishing privileges for one year. Lenz also pleaded guilty and paid $2,500 in restitution and lost his fishing privileges for one year.
Let’s keep talking fish here, with one final case. This one takes us to Richland County where Ron Gasparac was charged with 3 felony counts of selling yellow perch fillets. On 6 different occasions Gasparac was documented with over-harvesting yellow perch, sometimes taking more than double the legal limit. He would then clean and illegally sell the fish. Unlike all the other cases, Gasparac fought the charges, but lost. In all, Gasparac was ordered to pay $6,120 in restitution and received 2 years’ probation.
Whew! There you have it, Operation North Coast! As mentioned earlier, this is the largest case in the 146-year history of the Ohio DNR’s Division of Wildlife. It resulted in 46 defendants being charged with 91 felonies and 73 misdemeanors, a total of $131,763 in fines and restitution, $18,000 in court costs, 8.6 years of jail time with the majority suspended, and a cumulative total of 79 years of lost hunting and fishing privileges.
That sounds like a lot when you read that last paragraph. But, as always, I want to know what you think! Do you feel the punishments fit the crimes? If you read my work, you already know how I feel. I’m all about permanent loss of hunting privileges, and in some of these cases, fishing privileges as well. Share your thoughts below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org