Poachers Were My Prey

By R.T. Stewart, as told to W.H. "Chip" Gross

Undercover wildlife officer details operation to infiltrate and hook Ohio fish poaching ring.

"You ain't no damn game warden, are ya?" the poacher snarled.

I looked him straight in the eye and lied. "Game warden ...? I ain't no game warden!"

The poacher paused, mulling over my answer, and added quietly, "Then why you askin' so many questions?"

Thus begins the true story of R. T. Stewart's career as an undercover wildlife law enforcement officer with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. For nearly two decades, Stewart used his specialized skills to infiltrate poaching rings throughout Ohio, the Midwest, and beyond.

In his new book, Poachers Were My Prey: Eighteen Years as an Undercover Wildlife Officer, Stewart chronicles his undercover adventures, detailing the techniques he used in putting poachers behind bars. It also reveals, for the first time, the secrets employed by undercover wildlife officers in catching the bad guys. Operation Cornerstone was one of Stewart's longest undercover cases, beginning in 2000 and spanning nearly two years. Stewart tells the following story in his own words.

Operation Cornerstone

The tiny town of Conneaut, Ohio, lies in the extreme northeast corner of the Buckeye State, bordering Pennsylvania and Lake Erie. This investigation was titled Operation Cornerstone in reference to Ashtabula County, where the project took place, being known as the "Cornerstone of Ohio."

The fish most sought after by sport anglers in the area is the yellow perch, a small but highly-prized sport fish, valued for its excellent, mild taste. As a result, the fish has a price on its head, and intelligence in this undercover case indicated that yellow perch were being poached by the tens of thousands by local anglers and sold illegally.

The three main targets in the investigation were supposedly selling sport-caught yellow perch from Lakeshore Marina and the local Moose Lodge. The selling of perch, or any other sport-caught game fish, is illegal in Ohio. Only licensed, commercial fishermen are permitted to sell their catch.

Drawing of Operation Cornerstone

During my first visit to the Moose Lodge, I was sitting on a bar stool watching TV, socializing with whoever happened to sit down beside me. After a while I said to the guy seated to my right, "Ya know, I've come up here to the lake from West Virginia a few times, tried to catch some perch, and just haven't had any luck. I can't seem to catch ‘em, and don't know how. If I had my druthers, I'd just sit on this barstool, drink beer, watch TV, and let someone else catch "em, then I'd buy the fish from him."

The guy surprised me by saying immediately, "Well, hell, I'll sell you some fish ... "

"Do you have yellow perch?" I asked.

"Yeah ... "

"How much you want for them?" I asked.

"I'll sell you perch for eight dollars a pound. And I'll even go get 'em right now, if you want."

I told him, "Sure, go get it. And when you come back, park beside the silver van in the parking lot ... that's my vehicle."

"OK," he said, and left the bar.

About an hour later, the guy returned to the Moose Lodge, walked up to the bar and tapped me on the shoulder. We went outside and his vehicle was parked beside my van, just as I'd instructed him. I opened the double doors on the passenger side of my van and got out a set of weighing scales I'd purchased just for this investigation. I hung the scales in the open doorway, directly in front of the hidden video camera I had mounted in the van. I then turned the camera on without the bad guy seeing me do it.

The guy got a cooler out of his vehicle filled with packages of frozen yellow perch fillets, and I started weighing the packages, one at a time. He seemed a little suspicious of the scales, and I put him at ease by explaining it was the way I did business the first time I dealt with someone.

"It's nothing personal," I said. "I just want to make sure I'm getting my money's worth."

And when I paid him, instead of just handing him the money, I counted out the bills for the camera to record, "twenty, forty, sixty ... " I bought eighty dollars worth of yellow perch fillets that very first night at the Conneaut Moose Lodge. And before we were through with the transaction in the parking lot, I also made sure to ask him, on camera, where he got the fish.

"I caught 'em myself ... from the lake," he admitted proudly.

In the evenings during this investigation, my undercover partner and I (Jim Baker) would occasionally build a campfire outside the cabin we were renting, sit around the fire, talk, and drink a few beers.The guy who owned the cabin lived two doors away, and he and his girlfriend would come over and join us. During those first few visits, I let it be known to them that I'd bought some perch from one of the locals at the Moose Lodge, and that we were interested in buying more. The couple listened quietly, then the woman said, "If you're interested, my dad sells fish to people."

"He does?" I said, trying not to sound too anxious.

"Yeah. He's got a fish-cleaning shed out behind his house, and sells perch to people all the time.  In fact, he’s stopping by here later tonight. If you're serious about buying some fish, I'll tell him to come over and see you."

"We'll be here," I said, opening a can of beer and handing it to her. "Send him on over."

About an hour later, an older gentleman showed up and the woman introduced him as her dad. We talked to him for a few minutes, then he said, "My daughter tells me you're lookin' to buy some fish ... that right?"

I told him yes, yellow perch, and he said, "Well, I go fishin' every morning, and sometimes in the evening, too. How many pounds you want?"

I dickered with him a little on price, finally settling on eight dollars per pound, the same price I had paid when buying perch at the Moose Lodge. He told me he'd have fish for me the next day and to stop by his house about noon. Baker and I arrived at his house mid-day, just as the man had instructed, and we bought about a hundred dollars worth of fish.

A problem quickly arose in this investigation because we were soon buying so many fish we were running out of money. The Division of Wildlife would only give us three or four hundred dollars at a time for "buy" money, and I could easily purchase that much illegal fish in the first day or two after arriving for a long weekend stay at the cabin.

As the investigation progressed, Officer Baker and I continued dropping by Lakeshore Marina and the Moose Lodge. Raoul Erdman (a.k.a. Corky) was a good friend of the marina owner, and both were two of the main targets of the investigation. The third target was Walter Kaczoroski or "Wally." All three of the men owned large, charter-fishing boats they docked at Lakeside Marina, these boats costing tens of thousands of dollars each.

A guy came in to the Moose Lodge one evening and sat down beside me at the bar. I didn't know his name, but I remembered seeing him that very day at the marina. We talked some, and he eventually said his name was Jason Heinbaugh, and that he was the first mate on Corky's charter boat. He said he also helped clean fish at the marina and made extra money selling perch on the side

I dickered with him on the price of the perch so as not to seem too anxious to make a buy. I also let him know I'd already bought fish from an older guy in town two or three times, and he said he knew him. That helped build my credibility with Jason.

I quickly learned that I had to portray I had money to get deeper into this group of poachers. As I spent more and more time at the Moose Lodge, I made sure that I showed up looking sharp. Many of these guys were professional businessmen in the community, and I had to make them believe that I had money, too — money to spend on buying perch.

By mid-summer, the poachers had so completely fallen for my act that it got to be humorous. When my van showed up in town for the weekend, it was like kids running toward an ice cream truck. Poachers would literally line up waiting to sell me their fish. I could easily have spent a thousand dollars per weekend buying illegal yellow perch, and sometimes did. I could have very well bought even more, but just didn't have the money.

A few weeks later I called Jason, told him I was coming up to the lake for the weekend, and asked him if he had any fish for me. He said he did, saying he could provide me as much as one hundred pounds of perch fillets per week. I told him I was interested, but needed to wait until after the Fourth of July holiday. What I was stalling for was time to get more money from my supervisor. There wasn't enough money in the investigation's bank account to buy one hundred pounds of perch weekly at seven dollars per pound.

I finally made contact with one of the three main targets in this investigation when I went to Lakeshore Marina one morning looking for Jason, but couldn't find him. I asked the guys if anyone had seen him, and they said no, but that he might be with Corky (Raoul Erdman). They suggested I call Corky, but I told them I didn't have his phone number. They picked up a phone, dialed the number, and handed me the receiver.

Corky answered and I told him my name was Bill Stone and that I was looking for Jason. I said Jason was supposed to sell me some fish. Corky said, "How much you want? I'll sell you some." I told him about 20 pounds, and he said, "Yeah, I've got 20 pounds. Come on over to my house."

I drove to Corky's house and he invited me in. He then took me to his freezer, dug out several bags of yellow perch, and handed them to me. I asked him when he'd caught the fish and he said, "Oh, sometime this summer, maybe a month or so ago." I asked him if he'd caught them himself and he said he had, with the help of a few friends. I carried the perch out to my van, but before paying Corky, hung the weighing scales and weighed the packages, just as I had when dealing for the first time with the other poachers.

And just as the other poachers had, Corky questioned me using the scales. I told him the same line I'd used with the other poachers, saying that if he and I were going to do business, we needed to be able to trust one another. I counted the money out to him, and when we were done he said, “Whenever you need more perch, just let me know."

"I'm sure I'll be back," I said grinning, and shook his hand.

The third main target in the investigation, after the marina owner and Corky, was Walter Kaczoroski, known as Wally. This guy was a good friend of Jason's, so he offered to begin selling me fish, too, and I started buying from him. By this time, I was buying fish from so many people I was completely out of money by the end of most weekends.

The Fourth of July came, and I made it a point to be at the cabin that weekend. I had been invited to Jason's house for a cookout, and when I got there he and Eric, his fishing buddy, were sitting at a table and chairs in the backyard. I walked in to the party wearing a cowboy hat, and sat down across the table from Jason and Eric.

We hadn't been talking too long when Jason said, "Bill, we've got something to tell you."

"Okay ...," I said. "Shoot."

Eric started, "Bill, I want you to know that I worked for the U.S. Coast Guard, and ..."

All I heard were the words Coast Guard and went ballistic, not giving him a chance to finish. "You're telling me you work for the Coast Guard! Are you telling me that after I've already bought illegal fish from you that you two are cops? Did you guys set me up ... ? Are you wearing a body wire?"

"Hell, no, we're not cops," Eric stammered. "We didn't set you up!"

"Well, I know I ain't no cop. And I ain't wearin' no wire," I said angrily. "And we're going to prove it to each other, right now. Gentlemen, strip off your shirt and pants!"

They looked incredulous, but when they saw me stand up, peel off my shirt, unbuckle my belt and drop my pants, they did the same. Within seconds, all three of us were standing with our shirts off, our pants down around our knees, stripped down to our underwear. Once we each saw there were no body wires present, we put our clothes back on and sat down. Eric finally said sheepishly, "You didn't give me a chance to finish, Bill ... What I was trying to tell you was that I was recently fired from the Coast Guard for failing a drug test. I just wanted you to know that in case it made any difference to you about buying fish from us. Is our deal still on? One hundred pounds per week?"

The party eventually resumed, but what that little impromptu strip-tease scenario had done was remove any suspicion Jason and Eric may have had that I was a law enforcement officer and couldn't be trusted. What they didn't realize was that I had hidden a small body wire in the crown of my cowboy hat — and it had recorded our entire conversation there at the table.

Summer eventually turned to fall’s cooler weather, and I continued buying perch from Jason. But one day he told me he couldn't continue supplying me the one hundred pounds of fish per week I'd been buying. He said he couldn't get out on the lake as often now because of the changing fall weather and the storms it brought. But he said he had quite a few buddies scattered through town who had fish in their freezers and were willing to sell to me.

Excited about the prospect of now making a huge buy from many different people, I called my supervisor and told him that if he could get me five thousand dollars to make a gigantic buy, we could take down all the remaining poachers in Conneaut and wrap up the case. To my great surprise and disappointment, he said no, that five thousand dollars was just too much money, that he couldn't authorize that amount.

I had two thousand dollars of the five thousand I needed to make the major perch buy, but was told by my supervisor that I had to spend the two thousand before he could get me more. So that weekend, I spent the entire two thousand dollars I had buying perch. I had so many perch fillets by Sunday afternoon that I couldn't fit them all in my van, hundreds of pounds of fish.

As it turned out, because I couldn't get the additional money I needed to make the big buy, I was unable to identify any more poachers in this investigation. As a result, Operation Cornerstone began to wind down, ending in late May of 2002, just as the yellow perch fishing season was beginning to pick up again for the summer.

We had evidence against all the main targets except one — the marina owner — and didn't know for sure if we could indict him even if we spent more time on this project. I had asked to buy fish from him several times, but he was always very cautious and evasive, and would never sell me any. I believed he was poaching, but had contracts with local restaurants to provide them fish, so didn't have to sell to individuals like me.

The takedown happened on the Fourth of July weekend in 2002. Because of the tens of thousands of illegal perch caught and sold during this case, the restitution payments imposed on the poachers were much larger than the fines. Every one of the eight poachers arrested was found guilty. In addition, Operation Cornerstone was the first time in Ohio anyone had ever been arrested and convicted for the commercialization of wildlife under a felony statute. Up until that time, all wildlife law violations, whether they involved illegal commercialization or not, were considered misdemeanors under Ohio law.

That was one of the things that surprised some of the poachers when they were arrested. Several of them had been arrested for wildlife law violations previously and had only had to pay small fines. None of them had ever had to spend time in jail. What they didn't know was that Ohio wildlife laws had changed, and that illegal commercialization of wildlife was now considered a fifth-degree felony. So when Corky was arrested, for example, he told the uniformed wildlife officers, "Just give me my ticket. I'll pay it ..." He was shocked to hear the officers say, "No, Corky, this time you're coming with us."End of story hook

— Published: Srping 2014

Order The Book

Photo of the book Poachers Were My Prey by RT Stewart

Published by Kent State University Press, copies of Poachers Were My Prey: Eighteen Years as an Undercover Wildlife Officer may be ordered online or through your local bookstore.

For an autographed copy, send a personal check or money order in the amount of $27.35 (made payable to WORDsmith) to: WORDsmith, 6108 Township Road 88, Fredericktown, OH 43019.  Please include a note as to whom you would like your book(s) signed.


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