Ohio wildlife agency wraps up Operation North Coast
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has wrapped up Operation North Coast, the largest poaching case in the 146-year history of the Division of Wildlife. The case primarily concerned the illegal taking and selling of Lake Erie sportfish and white-tailed deer in counties along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Since the takedown, state wildlife investigators have spent more than two years attending court hearings in Cuyahoga, Lorain, Lucas, Richland, Ottawa and Wood counties. Seized were one vehicle, 96 deer and turkey mounts, 35 sets of antlers, more than 200 pounds of filleted sportfish and 400 pounds of de-boned venison and processed deer meat.
Game wardens said members of the group took deer illegally, often checking deer in the names of others. The deer meat was made into venison “smokies” that were sold or bartered for taxidermy and other services.
In Cuyahoga County, John Zayac, John Stofan and Terrance Ankrom harvested 39 deer, including 22 antlered deer, over the two-year course of the investigation. The legal bag limit is one buck per year per person. The group would have family members falsify records in the Ohio’s game check system.
Zayac took 2,000 pounds of de-boned venison to Todd Neczeporenko, who owns Smokin’ Ts meat processing in Ashtabula County, for processing. Smokin’ Ts was charged with money laundering for converting the boneless venison into products later sold. Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecutor James Guitierrez coined the group as “racketeers in camouflage.”
Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Donnelly ruled Zayac must pay $40,000 in restitution, had hunting privileges revoked for seven years, forfeited a truck and 44 of the 54 seized deer mounts. Stofan was ordered to pay $25,000, lost hunting privileges for five years and 31 of 35 deer mounts.
Ankrom was ordered to pay $6,800, forfeited a truck and lost his hunting privileges for five years. Neczeporenko’s business was ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution.
In Wood County, Mandon Freeworth was charged with 16 counts, including 10 felonies, including discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, felony sales of wildlife, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, tampering with records and drug abuse. Freeworth served 22 months in prison, paid $5,513 in restitution and lost his privilege to hunt, fish and trap until 2035. In addition, 21 associates of Freeworth were charged with 39 crimes, including providing false information to the division’s game check system, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, tampering with records and hunting without permission.
In a unique case documented by investigators, Matthew Langlois and Lawrence “Andy” Turner committed theft by deception when they entered and won a walleye tournament on the Maumee River and $375. The fish they entered had actually been caught on Lake Erie. In addition to a $250 fine, the two had to reimburse Maumee River Bait and Tackle for the prize money.
In Lorain County, Carl Taylor Jr. and Alexander Lenz sold more than 100 pounds of sport-caught yellow perch, walleye and white bass to investigators, a felony. Taylor was ordered to pay $10,700 in restitution, and Lenz had to pay $2,500 in restitution. Both lost fishing privileges for one year.
Dennis and Andrew Urig were charged in Lorain County Common Pleas Court for felony sales of white-tailed deer meat from a storefront they owned. Urig paid $3,663 and lost his hunting and fishing privileges for six years. Urig was ordered to pay $1,340 and lost his hunting and fishing privileges for three years.
In Richland County, Ron Gasparac was charged with three felony counts of selling yellow perch fillets. He was documented six times of over-harvesting yellow perch on Lake Erie, at times more than twice the daily limit. Gasparac was sentenced to pay $6,120 in restitution.
In all, the cases resulted in 46 defendants being charged with 91 felonies and 73 misdemeanors. The 46 people were assessed a combined $131,763 in fines and restitution, sentenced to 8.6 years of jail with the majority suspended, received 79 years of hunting and fishing revocations and paid more than $18,000 in court costs.
Ohio Division of Wildlife officers pose with 96 deer and turkey mounts and 35 sets of antlers that were confiscated during Operation North Coast, a two-year poaching investigation along the Lake Erie shoreline that was the largest in Ohio history.