For years, crooked Maryland and Virginia watermen went to local courts and paid their fines for illegal fishing — $50, $100, $150 — and then went back to their boats to poach some more.
They considered it the cost of doing business, investigators say.
But a partnership of state and federal law enforcement officials changed the game. With the sentencing last week of the final player, the Interagency Wildlife Task Force laid waste to the largest commercial fish poaching ring in the history of the Chesapeake Bay.
The eight-year investigation snared watermen who caught striped bass out of season, exceeded their annual quotas and sold oversized fish, and wholesalers who knowingly bought the illegal fish and falsified records to hide the crimes.
In Elliott Ness style, a team of lawyers and officers built their cases on paperwork — much of it handwritten by the corrupt watermen and dealers — and weights and fish counts that didn't add up. Undercover officers labored to infiltrate a closed society, where family names worked like membership cards. And they bypassed the local courts in favor of federal charges, before a no-nonsense federal judge.
The change in tactics paid off. In all, members of the black market ring were found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges of poaching 1.63 million pounds of striped bass with a fair market value of $6.54 million.
The task force convicted 19 men and put 15 of them in prison for violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits anyone from transporting, selling or buying fish harvested illegally. Its investigation pushed two wholesalers out of business, and left a third reeling. The government collected $1.66 million in fines and restitution. And the case sent Maryland officials scrambling to close loopholes, toughen fines and penalties and repair a broken honor system for reporting catches.
"In the context of today's world, illegal harvesting and dealing of seafood may seem like a negligible offense," said Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Poachers often point to an immediate need to maintain their way of life and to hardships of making a living from the Chesapeake's ailing waters. But it is exactly this type of illegal activity that most threatens to undermine the long-term sustainability of our fisheries and our fishing-based communities."
Building a case
Developing evidence took time. The poachers did their most damaging work during April and May, when the biggest migratory striped bass enter the Chesapeake and its tributaries to spawn. Task force members wanted to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit — the watermen — to the dealers who made it worth their while to poach. And when it was all over, they wanted criminal convictions and severe penalties, not $50 tickets.
"This is not the sort of case you can prove by looking at a fish once it's on a plate in a restaurant or somebody's kitchen," said Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland. "You have to actually be there when the fish are caught and when they're sold at the first stage."
Late last month, OceanPro Ltd., Washington's largest wholesaler with $44 million in annual sales, and two company officials were sentenced to pay fines and restitution of $942,500 for buying from watermen tens of thousands of pounds of illegal striped bass and falsifying records from 1995 to 2007. In addition, vice president Timothy Lydon of Bethesda was sentenced to 21 months in prison and fish buyer Benjamin Clough of Grasonville was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The company, which also uses the name Profish, is still in operation.
The work of the task force established a model for states to work together with help from federal agencies to solve crimes against nature that cut across boundaries, law enforcement officials say.
"This is exactly — exactly — the kind of case that begged for a federal role," said Ignacia Moreno, assistant U.S. attorney general. "The Chesapeake Bay and the striped bass are national treasures. It's really important that we preserve them not only for our enjoyment but for the enjoyment of generations to come."
This account of the eight-year investigation is based on court records and testimony, evidence and interviews with lawyers for the Justice Department and undercover officers with Maryland Natural Resources Police, Virginia Marine Police and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose names are not used to protect their identities.
The investigation started in late 2002, targeting Virginia watermen: the Decaturs — Jerry senior and junior — and Scott, Kenneth and Dennis Dent. Officers suspected they were selling illegal striped bass to OceanPro Ltd. through a deal struck in 1995 by Scott Dent, nicknamed "The Brain" by investigators.
The Decaturs, who used spotters to warn them about approaching game officers, worked one stretch of the Potomac while the Dents fished about 10 miles upstream near the Quantico Marine Base.
"We knew they were taking, but we couldn't prove it at the outset of the investigation," said Wayne Hettenbach, the Justice Department attorney who prosecuted the cases.
From an environmental standpoint, the stakes were high. The Chesapeake Bay is the spawning grounds and nursery for about three-quarters of the striped bass on the Eastern Seaboard. The striped bass population, while healthy now, had been fished to dangerously low levels. A five-year ban on fishing that began in the mid-1980s restored the stock, but officials up and down the coast worry overfishing could lead to another collapse. When the large female fish move into the bay and its tributaries each spring, fisheries officials close off the areas.
"These guys weren't just taking one fish, they were taking thousands from future generations," said Maryland NRP Cpl. Mike Burnham, who pushed to have the cases pursued by federal investigators after years of seeing his poaching cases result in small fines in local courts.
In Maryland, watermen are allowed to catch striped bass by three methods: hook and line and two types of nets. Each gear type has a specific season and a specific number of pounds of fish that can be caught. All striped bass must be tagged and taken to a check-in station, which sends a weekly report to the Department of Natural Resources.
Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission each have its own regulations, seasons and tags.
The convicted watermen gamed the system by exploiting weaknesses in Maryland's regulations and the three overlapping jurisdictions. They used plastic tags from one jurisdiction on striped bass caught in another location, and claimed they were using one type of gear when they were using another. They fished out of season to target huge female fish during the spring spawning season. They exploited a loophole to tap into the seemingly limitless stock of tags Maryland gave watermen when they claimed — with the flimsiest of documentation — that they had not reached their poundage quotas. And when the state stopped putting the year on its tags in 2000 to save money, the watermen began stockpiling and reusing tags.
"It wasn't as if they were all doing it one way. We started uncovering schemes within schemes within schemes," said Hettenbach. "What they did harmed honest watermen who play by the rules. It was like they were stealing from the guys right next to them."
Infiltrating the system
As outlined in court documents, undercover officers from Virginia Marine Police began selling small numbers of illegal striped bass to Golden Eye Seafood in St. Mary's County in 2003. Across the Potomac River, they posed as seafood dealers and began buying fish from the Decaturs and Dents.
Then a break came in 2005, when the Decaturs approached a uniformed Virginia officer who had regularly ticketed them and offered a deal: You give us the work schedules of patrolling officers and there might be "a big, fat envelope" in it for you.
The officer reported the offer to his superiors, and they decided to play along. Soon, the officer was selling fish to the Decaturs and fishing with them, where he learned their poaching techniques, court documents show.
The watermen fished the Potomac River with unmarked sunken nets during the closed season and nets designed to snag only the largest fish. The Decaturs showed the officer how to attach a plastic tag without snapping it closed so that it could be removed later and used again.
A surveillance video used as evidence shows Jerry Decatur Sr., in orange bibs, and a helper unloading striped bass the size of toddlers from a low-slung boat the color of fog into a truck on May 5, 2005, when the season was closed. Officers followed the truck at 3 a.m. out of Virginia and into D.C., where it unloaded at Ocean Pro, also known as Profish.
In addition to selling the fish to markets across the country, investigators said, Profish had another outlet: a handful of restaurants in the region, including The Rockfish in Annapolis, whose managing partner is Greg Casten, president of Profish.
Court documents show the Decaturs and a Maryland-licensed waterman, Tommy Hallock, also found a willing buyer in Robert Moore, owner of Cannon Seafood, an upscale Georgetown supplier and retail market, with customers ranging from embassies to Capitol Hill.
As task force members began identifying watermen, they tried to infiltrate their operations.
"It takes a couple of years to get them to trust you. You have to break bread with them. Once you get in, you can start making bigger buys," said an undercover Virginia officer with 25 years on the waterfront. "But they smell a little bit of a rat, and you're done."
When he met with the Dents in their garage, the officer said he was pulled aside by an older family member who grabbed his hand and grilled him for 10 minutes about the Virginia neighborhood where he grew up and the characters who lived there, including a man who looked just like Santa Claus. The officer passed muster. A colleague wasn't as lucky, he said. The Dents immediately nicknamed him, "Larry, the federal game warden," and the officer had to be pulled from the investigation.
Those already on the inside continued to gather evidence.
On the Maryland side of the river, watermen brought their catch to Golden Eye Seafood, the check station operated by Robert Lumpkins. Instead of following the state's regulations, Lumpkins and the watermen increased the number of fish and decreased the weight so that the watermen would appear to be under their poundage quota and could ask the state for more tags and bring more fish to market, court documents show.
Golden Eye, Cannon and Profish bought stripers without tags and fish that were out of season and wrote phony bills of sales to disguise the fact. Cannon went so far as to describe loads of striped bass as white perch, evidence shows.
The result was the wholesalers "had striped bass when no one else did," Hettenbach said.
Investigators took aerial photos that they say show underwater pens used by Keith "Booty" Collins and other watermen to hold fish caught before the start of the commercial season. The men took those fish to market on opening day to get top dollar before the catches of legitimate watermen came in later and drove down prices, the investigators said.
In August 2007, the task force knew enough to make its move.
"If we didn't have five aces, we wouldn't have proceeded with these cases," said one Maryland undercover officer.
Making the bust
Ninety-five officers from seven agencies served simultaneous search warrants in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. They searched vehicles and vessels and seized records from Golden Eye and Lumpkins, and St. Mary's waterman Joe Nelson Jr. In Virginia, they targeted the Decaturs and Dents. In D.C, they searched Profish.
With that collected information, Maryland officers "began sitting down late at night with adding machines," said Burnham, a former bank examiner who spent 35 years as an NRP officer before retiring in 2005.
It was tough going. Nelson, who was later charged with selling illegal fish to undercover officers on eight occasions, went so far as to use a knife to simulate a hook entry point on fish caught in nets so that he could add to his total take, investigators said. But a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory in Oregon proved that all the incisions were exactly the same.
Watermen not only fished with their own licenses but also used Maryland permits issued to others who chose not to fish, a practice that is legal in the state. Collins, for example, had 22 licenses, including one held by a Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service employee.
What officers found when they broke down each poacher's claimed catch was that the weights of individual striped bass didn't come close to the average weight used by state fisheries biologists. Further, their claimed weights did not look anything like the robust fish of the surveillance videos and photos.
"The math didn't add up for legal fishing, it only added up for illegal fishing," said Hettenbach. "That became the compelling argument to get them to plead."
By late January 2009, Hallock, Collins, Thomas Crowder, Charles Quade and John Dean all had signed plea agreements admitting that they took part in the poaching ring with Golden Eye and Lumpkins, who signed a similar plea agreement in May.
Conservation groups and fisheries agencies along the East Coast demanded accountability.
Vince O'Shea, executive director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said it was time for the public to see "that the consequences are more than just the cost of doing business … the public must have confidence that the vast majority of participants in the fishery are fully complying and that those caught cheating, both harvesters and purchasers, will be held accountable."
Hoagland, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, asked for "the maximum allowable penalties" under the Lacey Act —five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
When it came time to go to court, all but two of the cases were assigned to the senior member of the bench in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt: Peter Messitte.
Born in Washington and raised in Bethesda, Messitte has a history of handling high-profile cases. He will hear the pending suit by 72 Iraqis who allege they were tortured by a military contractor while imprisoned at detention facilities across Iraq, including Abu Ghraib.
At the trial in early 2009, Messitte immediately signaled that he considered the poaching cases important as he sharply questioned the first five watermen. With family and friends looking on, Collins, Hallock, Crowder, Quade and Dean each admitted to their crimes.
When it came time for sentencing, each waterman begged for leniency. In a halting voice and pausing to keep his composure, Hallock said news accounts had made the watermen out to be "poachers and pirates," but "I'm just a father and a husband, a fisherman ... I didn't do this out of greed ... I have a strong desire to support my family."
Messitte sentenced him to serve one year in prison and pay $44,000 in fines and restitution to a federal wildlife restoration fund.
Crowder was given 15 months in a federal prison and ordered to pay $101,250 in fines and restitution. Collins received a 13-month prison sentence and was ordered to pay $75,069 in fines and restitution.
The dominos fell quickly. In D.C federal court in May 2009, Cannon Seafood owner Robert Moore Sr. and his son, Robert Jr., each were sentenced to four months' home detention and ordered to pay $203,000 in fines and restitution for buying illegal fish and falsifying records.
Sentencing of the Decaturs, Dents and Nelson Jr. continued through the summer and into the fall. For stealing 121,104 pounds of striped bass with a fair market value of $606,493, the judge sentenced the six poachers to a total of 32 months in prison and 14 months of home detention and ordered them to pay $64,271 in fines and restitution.
While he expressed "some sympathy" for the watermen, Messitte took a particularly dim view of the fish dealers. Lumpkins was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison and, with Golden Eye, was ordered to pay $200,040 in fines and restitution.
When it came time to sentence Profish and two of its top employees two weeks ago, the judge could barely hide his anger as Hettenbach outlined how they lied to investigators and destroyed records.
"I don't really see remorse on the part of the company. This is very serious here," said Messitte. "I don't know that the corporation gets it yet. There is a price to be paid for this."
A lasting message?
Prosecutors said they were pleased at the outcome.
"We have a model that worked in this case. My expectation is that people are going to think twice because the folks who have been convicted have received significant jail time and they have been required to pay significant fines and restitution," said Moreno.
The convictions led to other penalties for the watermen.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission revoked the fishing licenses and permits for two years — the maximum penalty — of five watermen for their part in the poaching ring: Jerry Decatur Sr., Jerry Decatur Jr., Dennis Dent, Scott Dent and Gordon Jett.
The Potomac River Fisheries Commission also took action, banning Jett and the Decaturs from holding recreational or commercial licenses or working on anyone else's boat. Commissioners also penalized Scott Dent, Kenneth Dent and Dennis Dent along with Joseph Nelson Jr. with revocations and other sanctions.
But Maryland could not follow suit. At the time the cases came to light, state law did not give DNR the authority to strip licenses or permits from watermen convicted of federal crimes. As a precaution, some watermen gave up their licenses or transferred them to a friend or family member.
The law was changed "after the fact," said DNR's Gina Hunt. "We can't go back and take their licenses and we can't revoke or suspend something they don't have."
This year, Dean, Crowder and Collins reclaimed their licenses, she said.
Profish, with 90 employees, will have to function without Lydon and Clough. Golden Eye lost its status as a state check station and is shuttered. Robert Cannon Sr. retired and turned the business over to his son, who renamed it Cannon's Fish Market. A handwritten sign hangs in the window telling customers that the shop is no longer allowed to sell striped bass "by order of U.S. District Court."
Members of the task force are under no illusion that their eight years of work will keep striped bass safe from poachers, but they hope the overwhelming number of convictions and penalties will make the commercial fishing industry take notice.
"It's not enough to deter the fisherman. You've got to deter the fish house," said Hettenbach. "If these guys couldn't sell the fish, they wouldn't catch them. I want the manager of the next Profish, when confronted with an untagged fish, to think twice about it."
Defendant, Jail time (months), Home detention (months), Fine, Restitution, Supervised release/probation
Golden Eye Seafood, NA, NA, 3 years probation,
Lumpkins, Robert, 18, 0, $36,000, $164,040, 3 years supervised release,
Cannon Seafood, NA, NA, $80,000, $28,000, 3 years probation
Moore, Robert Jr., 0, 4, $30,000, $10,000, 3 years probation,
Moore, Robert Sr., 0, 4, $40,000, $15,000, Four months home detention and 36 months probation/home detention
Profish Ltd., NA, NA, $575,000, $300,000, 3 years probation
Clough, Ben, 15, 0, $7,500, 0, 3 years supervised release,
Lydon, Tim, 21, 0, $60,000, 0, 3 years supervised release,
Collins, Keith, 13, 0, $4,500, $70,569, 2 years supervised release,
Crowder, Thomas Jr., 15, 0, $5,000, $96,250, 3 years supervised release,
Dean, John W., 1, 5, $1,000, $10,000, 2 years supervised release,
Decatur, Jerry Sr., 8, 0, $1,000, $18,999, 3 years supervised release,
Decatur, Jerry Jr., 10, 0, $1,000, $18,999, 3 years supervised release,
Dent, Dennis, 5, 5, $1,000, $5,818, 3 years supervised release,
Dent, Kenneth, 0, 0, $1,000, $2,905, 3 years probation,
Dent, Scott, 5, 5, $300, $3,000, 3 years supervised release,
Evans, John Strueven, 3, 6, $2,500, $2,340, 3 years supervised release,
Hallock, Thomas L. 12, 0, $4,000, $40,000, 3 years supervised release,
Jett, Gordon, 5, 5, 0, $4,572, 3 years supervised release,
Nelson, Joe Jr., 4, 4, $3,000, $7,250, 3 years supervised release,
Nelson, Joe Sr., 0, 0, $0, $0, 1 year probation,
Quade, Charles, 5, 5, $1,000, $15,000, 3 years supervised released,
Source: Department of Justice