Ohio's Operation North Coast

Ohio DNR

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) closed the adjudication phase of what has become the largest case in the 146-year history of the ODNR Division of Wildlife, dubbed Operation North Coast in early 2019. The case primarily concerned the illegal taking and sales of Lake Erie sportfish and white-tailed deer meat products in counties along the Lake Erie shoreline.

The case, Operation North Coast, culminated in March 2016 with the execution of search warrants, arrest warrants and dozens of simultaneous interviews. It primarily concerned the illegal taking and sales of Lake Erie sportfish and white-tailed deer meat products in counties along the Lake Erie shoreline. Investigators spent 2 1/2 years attending court hearings in Cuyahoga, Lorain, Lucas, Richland, Ottawa and Wood counties.

Along with reviewing documents and conducting interviews, state wildlife investigators seized items including 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. 

Nine defendants, including one in Wood County and eight in Cuyahoga County, were charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and associated crimes for operating as a criminal enterprise. The Division of Wildlife asserted members of the group took deer illegally, created false harvest records and laundered the deer meat into venison 'smokies.'

In Cuyahoga County, John Zayac, John Stofan and Terrance Ankrom harvested 39 deer, 22 bucks, during the two-year investigation. The group had their spouses and family members commit communications fraud and falsify records. The meat was transferred to Zayac, who took the de-boned venison to Smokin’ T’s, a meat processor in Ashtabula County.

Approximately 2,000 pounds of boneless venison were taken to Todd Neczeporenko, who owns Smokin’ Ts meat processing. Smokin’ Ts was charged with money laundering for converting the boneless venison into products that were later sold by members of the enterprise, primarily Zayac.

The following penalties were assessed by the Honorable Judge Michael Donnelly in plea agreements. Zayac paid $40,000 in restitution, had his hunting privileges revoked for seven years and forfeited 44 of the 54 seized deer mounts to the Division of Wildlife.

Stofan was ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution, lost his hunting privileges for five years and 31 of the 35 deer mounts were forfeited; Ankrom was ordered to pay $6,800 in restitution and lost his hunting privileges for five years; and Neczeporenko’s business pleaded to a lesser charge and had to pay $15,000 in restitution.

In Wood County, Mandon Freeworth harvested white-tailed deer illegally and had others commit communications fraud, a third-degree felony, by reporting the harvest as their own in the game check system. Freeworth was charged with 16 counts including 10 felonies. He pleaded to 10 charges, served 22 months in prison, paid $5,513.03 in restitution and lost his privilege to hunt, fish and trap until 2035. An additional 21 associates of Freeworth were charged with 39 crimes.

In a unique case, Matthew Langlois and Lawrence Turner committed theft by deception when they entered and won a walleye tournament on the Maumee River. The fish they entered had actually been caught on Lake Erie, yet they entered the fish and won $375. In addition to their $250 fine and 30-day suspended jail sentence, the two reimbursed 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 perch, walleye and white bass to investigators, which is a felony. Taylor pleaded to the 11-count indictment and was ordered to pay $10,700 in restitution, and Lenz was ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution. Both lost their fishing privileges for one year.

Also in Lorain County, Dennis and Andrew Urig were charged with the felony sales of white-tailed deer meat. The pair sold processed deer products from a storefront they owned and pleaded to their cases. Dennis paid $3,663.30 and lost his hunting and fishing privileges for six years, and Andrew 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 then cleaned and sold the fish. Gasparac lost his appeal and was sentenced to pay $6,120 in restitution and two years community control.

In all, the cases resulted in 46 defendants being charged with 91 felonies and 73 misdemeanors. They combined to pay $131,763 in fines and restitution and received 79 years of hunting and fishing revocation.

EnCon Police Arrest Suspect for Possession of Venomous Snakes

(HARTFORD, CT) – The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) State Environmental Conservation Police (EnCon), with the assistance of Meriden Police, on Thursday, April 26, 2018 served a search and seizure warrant at 22 Westfield Rd.  Meriden, CT after information was obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding an advertisement on a snake forum for the sale of several venomous snakes. Environmental Conservation Police Officers gained further information that the accused, Cameron DeFrances, 21, of Meriden had posted photographs on his social media account and listed the venomous snakes for sale.

Based on this information, EnCon officers applied for and executed a search warrant of the DeFrances residence in Meriden, locating multiple venomous snakes that are illegal to possess in Connecticut.   With the assistance of a qualified licensed reptile specialist all the snakes were seized and safely transported to a secure facility for reptiles. Seven snakes that are illegal to possess under Connecticut law were located alive in the residence and two snakes that were illegally possessed were found deceased. Among the snakes that were found alive include a Gaboon Viper, a Forest Cobra, Two Egyptian Banded Cobras and Two Monocled Cobras. A Tree Viper and a King Cobra were also found deceased.  

“DEEP takes these cases very seriously,” said Colonel Kyle Overturf. “The exploitation, importation and trafficking of illegally taken wildlife threatens species in our country and across the world.  DEEP helped to pass regulations to prohibit the importation and possession of potentially dangerous animals, including venomous snakes, as a measure to protect the health and safety of our residents and to protect the welfare of these species.”

DeFrances was charged with the following violations: Nine Counts of Illegal Possession of a Category Two Wild Animal and Reckless Endangerment First Degree.  DeFrances was processed at Meriden Police Department and released on a $1000.00 dollar surety bond with a court date of 5/10/2018 at Meriden Superior Court. 

Wardens helping Wardens: US officers send vital equipment to aid African wardens

Greg Salo

For Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lieutenant Colonel Greg Salo and other participants of the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs (NACLEC) 2016 Leadership Academy, the hope for the three week training was straight forward: learn the principles of adaptive leadership and grow their leadership capacity; network with other conservation law enforcement professionals; and take their new knowledge and contacts back home to address conservation challenges in their home state.  “Learning,” “Growing,” and “Networking” are the typical, foundational elements of most leadership programs.  What the members of this cohort soon discovered was that this program was not typical.  Instead, they found themselves immersed into a months-long experiential learning environment that often seemed chaotic and unsettling.

“We operate under the premise that the barriers to change and progress that officers face out in the world are present in the classroom,” explains NACLEC Executive Director Randy Stark.  “We live in a rapidly changing world where trust is a precious commodity and where we face uncertainty brought about by new realties every day.  Those two things alone create considerable stress in these administrators’ lives.  Often, our natural response to these stressors is to withdraw into the comfort of the familiar.  So, in this academy setting we use that discomfort to encourage participants to lean into the discomfort – to hold steady – and seek to understand what is driving the change, the stress, and the barriers to adaptation to these new realties in themselves and the system in which they operate.” 

During the students’ second residency at the National Conservation Training Center, their training was put to the test when 42 African participants from the International Conservation Chiefs Academy (ICCA) joined their cohort.  The purpose of the joint learning was to enhance transnational relationships in service of combatting international, illegal wildlife trafficking. 

“It takes a network to beat a network” Stark said.  “It creates a business opportunity for international illegal wildlife traffickers when transnational cooperation is low, and we aim to fix that.”

The African students were from across the continent, and had varied backgrounds, primary languages, and religious beliefs.  As the two groups from two different continents eyed each other, those questions of trust and feelings of uncertainty washed over the group.

“But as soon as we began interacting with each other, we found the common denominator with every individual in the group,” said Salo.  “While we may have looked different and sounded different, our individual and collective passion for protecting wildlife and wild places bonded us together.  We discovered we were more similar than different.”

Salo goes on to say, “Once those relationships were established, our counterparts began sharing the challenges of doing conservation law enforcement work in Africa.”

The stories were shocking. 

The U.S. officers heard stories of human/wildlife conflict that involve elephants and lions. They heard the African officers tell of poachers with ties to organized crime networks and terrorists groups.  These poachers are well armed and do not hesitate to engage in gunfire.  In fact during the 10 year period from 2006-2016, it is estimated that 1,000 African conservation rangers were killed in the line of duty.  This number is staggering given there are only 22,000 rangers and volunteers doing this work in Africa.  The Africans told of governments that were only decades old and that still experience the negative effects of European colonization.  They told of natural resources extraction that takes place with little concern for the environment.  In moments of contemplation they wondered whether the elephants and rhinos and gorillas could be saved.

The U.S. officers were stirred to action.  While they were concerned about the elephants and rhinos, their greater concern was for their newfound African brothers and sisters.  They heard of needs for basic necessities like uniforms, binoculars and spotting scopes.  Few of the Africans had protective, ballistic vests.  Those sentiments were echoed in a New York Times article from 2016.  That article quoted a World Wildlife Fund study that reported of the 570 rangers surveyed in 12 African countries, “59 percent did not have basic supplies like boots, tents and GPS devices.”

Salo and his cohort set out to address this problem.

“Most of our state agencies have a process in which we surplus used equipment,” Salo said in a recent interview.  “Much of this surplus equipment is completely serviceable.  Often uniforms are simply faded from use and items such as cameras have been replaced with newer models.  We thought that instead of selling this equipment for pennies on the dollar, we could donate them to conservation efforts in Africa.  It sounded so simple. 

“We took a stereotypical game warden approach: we saw a problem, we formulated a solution, and then we applied that action to the problem,” Salo continued.  “The Africans needed equipment.  We had surplus equipment we could donate.  All we had to do was collect the gear and ship it to our new friends.  It turned out that it wasn’t that simple.”

Randy Stark put the challenge faced by the officers into the terms of adaptive leadership. “We often rush to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge.  In this case, the need was clear – many of the Africans lacked basic equipment.  Greg and his cohort applied a technical fix, collecting equipment for donation.  The aspect they didn’t fully understand were the underlying issues that created this lack of equipment.  In adaptive work we always have to assess and identify what structures and mental models are creating these problems.  Once we identify those, we can then began to make progress.”

Salo credits retired California Fish and Wildlife Colonel Nancy Foley, a NACLEC peer coach, with helping guide the group through the layers of bureaucracy they encountered and expanding their field of vision of who they should be talking with to move the project forward.  One of those was Naimah Aziz.

Niamah Aziz

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) is a co-sponsor of this academy.  Salo credits OLE’s Supervisory Wildlife Inspector (SWI) Naimah Aziz with guiding the shipping efforts.  “Through participation in the ICCA, I have the honor of working with others in the global wildlife conservation community," said SWI Aziz. “Getting the equipment to the designated ICCA graduates was not a simple task: it took over a year, and required perseverance, resolve and teamwork.” With the assistance OLE’s International Operations Unit, and the USFWS senior special agent attachés stationed in Africa, the equipment was shipped and delivered to the African rangers. “To date, this is one of the most rewarding projects I have participated in. It spans all links of the conservation chain including U.S. state officers, wildlife inspectors, special agents, and end-use African rangers.” The Wildlife Tomorrow Fund also played a pivotal role.  They utilized their contacts to aid with shipping and their volunteers carried extra suitcases filled with uniforms on one of their trips.

“This ability will work across factional boundaries is a key element of adaptive work,” said Stark. “It requires that a person in a position of authority convene a group of stakeholders and create a space where collaboration around a collective purpose can take place. When we partner with others, we sometimes face differing sets of values and loyalties.  These conflicting values and loyalties requires us to consider whether the challenge facing us is worth risking of disappointing our own ‘tribe.’  That’s why true leadership is risky business.”

For Salo and others, the beauty of this leadership program is its approach.  “In the classroom we heard the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges,” he said.  “We discussed ‘creating holding environments’ and ‘partnering with authority’ and ‘working across factions.’  The difference in this program is that we took those abstract, classroom terms and tested them on a real problem outside the classroom.  And the work we are doing is having a conservation impact around the globe.”

Photos courtesy of  Wildlife Tomorrow Fund.

California Budget Makes Way for Wildlife

Wildlife got a big boost in Governor Jerry Brown’s last proposed budget for California. This week in his 2018–19 proposed budget, the governor included a significant increase in funding for California’s wildlife — the largest increase in a stable, ongoing funding source for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in recent memory. This money is critical for California to manage its diverse and fragile fish and wildlife resources.

Read more here.

A Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Officer Attacked

Orginal Author and Source: Bob Kalinowski. October 26, 2017.  The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

PLYMOUTH TWP. — A Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officer fatally shot a Nanticoke man in a wooded area along the Susquehanna River in West Nanticoke on Tuesday afternoon after the suspect assaulted and tried to drown him, prosecutors say.

The officer, who was not immediately named, encountered Sean Bohinski, 37, during a routine patrol of the riverbank near Canal Street, just off U.S. Route 11, authorities said.

“For some reason, a fight ensued with the male. The officer was struck repeatedly,” Luzerne County First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said earlier in the day.

Bohinski was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy is slated for this morning.

The officer was taken to an area hospital for treatment for his injuries, Sanguedolce said. A press release issued by state police at Wyoming late Tuesday indicated the officer was undergoing treatment for injuries sustained in the assault.

Sanguedolce said it’s standard for Fish and Boat Commission officers to be armed on patrol.

State police investigators are probing the circumstances behind the shooting.

“Obviously, it’s very early in this investigation,” Sanguedolce said.

Capt. John Nederostek, commanding officer of state police at Wyoming, said detectives from throughout the troop have been assigned to the case.

The shooting occurred in a wooded area of Plymouth Twp. off Route 11 near the Flamingo Diner and the Canal Street Park.

Authorities initially said they were looking for a possible second suspect and deployed a helicopter for the search. But they later said they no longer believe there was another person involved.

Several law enforcement officials on scene said Bohinski was bashing the officer’s head with a rock during the scuffle and before the officer opened fire.

State police indicated that after stopping the assault, the officer performed life-saving first aid procedures and called for emergency assitance.

During a press briefing, Sanguedolce only would say there “is information he may have had a weapon of some kind.”

“Again, he did strike the officer repeatedly and the evidence reveals that there probably was an attempt to drown the officer,” Sanguedolce said.

Jessica Reiss, 33, who lives on Canal Street by the river, said she heard two gunshots and then saw the officer emerge from the wooded area. He was holding his bloodied head, she said.

“They must have something to run from if they would attack an officer,” Reiss said.

Sanguedolce said an attack on a Fish and Boat Commission officer is like an assault on any other form of law enforcement.

“They are there to enforce the law,” Sanguedolce said. “When they are attacked, it’s an attack on all of us. We take these cases very seriously.”