One of the biggest black market fish cases in Maryland history came to court this week and all four defendants went belly up, admitting they stole thousands of protected bass from the Potomac River that wound up at seafood markets and restaurants as far away as Toronto.
Facing five-year prison terms and $250,000 in fines, the men from Southern Maryland pleaded guilty to breaking a federal law by stealing more than 40,000 pounds of protected largemouth bass worth nearly $150,000 from the Potomac between 1990 and 1993.
Pleading guilty to felony conspiracy charges in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt were Dennis Patrick Woodruff, Alfred Barney Grinder and Walter Irving Maddox, all from Charles County. Robert T. Brown Sr. of St. Mary's County pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane F. Barrett.
The men, most of them longtime watermen, will be sentenced in November and December.
The case unfolded in February 1993, when Canadian conservation officer Brad Labadie noticed fish shipments bound for Toronto were darker and much larger than farm-raised largemouth bass.
Documents show that Woodruff used a state Department of Natural Resources license to ship the bass, claiming they had been farm-raised. But investigators later found that the bass had been netted from the Potomac, not from his licensed ponds in Marbury, records show.
Game fish, such as largemouth bass, cannot legally be taken from the wild and sold commercially.
C. Thomas Brown, Woodruff's attorney, did not return calls yesterday.
Steven A. Allen, Grinder's attorney, said his client "regrets his actions, and it is because of that regret that he agreed to plead guilty."
Robert C. Bonsib, Robert T. Brown's attorney, said the case has been a "traumatic experience" for his client. "He's happy to put it behind him."
Joel L. Katz, Maddox's attorney, said the case has a larger meaning.
"It's a commentary on the harsh economic times because of the problems with the bay," Mr. Katz said. "My client is basically a hard-working waterman trying to eke out a living. . . . It was hard to make ends meet."