A grand jury in Cuyahoga County (Ohio) on Wednesday indicted a pair of anglers for three felonies—cheating in a competition, attempted grand theft and possessing criminal tools—as well as for a misdemeanor, unlawful ownership of wild animals, in the aftermath of a fishing cheating scandal, in which the duo was caught inflating the weight of fish.
Jacob Runyan, 42, and Chase Cominsky, 35, each face up to a year in prison for each of the three felonies, while the misdemeanor charge carries a maximum of 30 days in jail. They also may be fined thousands of dollars and lose their fishing licenses.
Runyan and Cominsky were the apparent winners of the final event in the Lake Erie Walleye Trail fishing tournament last month when the total weight of their five fish beat more than 60 two-person teams. They were set to take home a prize of about $30,000, but the tournament director, Jason Fischer, suspected the measured weight seemed too high. The fish also appeared to be unnaturally bulging. In a scene that became an Internet sensation, Fisher grabbed a fish, cut it open and found weights and flesh from other fish inside:
The other anglers were visibly outraged by what seemed like brazen cheating. Runyan and Cominsky were immediately disqualified from the competition, and were also urged to quickly leave the area to avoid physical harm. They will be arraigned on Oct. 26.
Felony charges for cheating in competitions are uncommon, and Ohio’s statute has been seldom utilized. A conviction requires a finding that the defendant knowingly engaged in the cheating. One example occurred in State v. DeLong (1984), where the defendant was convicted of taking balls out of a bingo machine and instead of calling the number, he placed the balls into his shirt to further a scheme.
Here, the competition rules prohibited illicit attempts to increase the weight of fish. Runyan and Cominsky are accused of intentionally violating those rules to further their scheme. Both men reportedly passed polygraph tests earlier this year after winning tournaments. They also were under suspicion this year after an unusual string of luck, including winning the three Walleye Trail events prior to the championship. Runyan and Cominsky are likely to have garnered more than $200,000 in cash and boats during the competitions, according the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The attempted grand theft charge reflects grand jurors finding that Runyan and Cominsky had the purpose to deprive the tournaments owner, Lake Erie Walleye Trail, of money or services, and they in turn “knowingly attempt[ed] to obtain or exert control over either the property or services by deception and the property or services stolen is valued at $7,500 or more and less than $150,000.”
Runyan and Cominsky will have a chance to offer defenses, though they will need an exonerating explanation for why their fish had weights and flesh in them. It’s possible their attorneys could negotiate a deal with prosecutors that avoids them having to spend time behind bars but compels them to publicly acknowledge guilt and apologize to other anglers, pay a fine and face a long suspension of their fishing licenses.
Any such admission would prove that at the Lake Erie tournament, it wasn’t only the fish that got caught.