The two men at the heart of a viral walleye tournament scandal have pleaded guilty to felony cheating and misdemeanor animal ownership.
Jacob Runyan, 43, and Chase Cominsky, 36, initially pleaded not guilty when indicted in October to cheating, attempted grand theft, possession of criminal tools, and illegal animal ownership. But when they appeared yesterday in a Cuyahoga County court to begin their trial, both men pleaded guilty to two of those charges in exchange for the remaining charges being dropped.
“I’m glad that they pleaded out,” Jason Fischer told MeatEater. Fischer organized the tournament at which Runyan and Cominsky were caught and appeared in the viral video of the incident cutting open fish and pulling out weights.
“It was nice to see that they pled guilty as opposed to a no contest,” he continued. “They admitted to doing everything that the state said they did. That’s good for the fishermen and the community as a whole to put this to bed.”
Runyan and Cominsky will be sentenced at their next hearing on May 11, but they have already been forced to surrender their $100,000 walleye boat and trailer and have been given a three-year fishing license suspension. Their fifth-degree felony conviction is the least severe felony in Ohio, but still usually comes with a mandatory six-to-twelve-month prison sentence and a fine of up to $2,500.
It’s unclear, however, whether the judge will opt to send either man to jail. In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors are recommending a six-month probationary period in lieu of jail time, according to Cleveland.com.
Fischer acknowledged that his fellow anglers are unlikely to be satisfied with this sentence, but he pointed out that crimes of theft aren’t usually punished by jail time.
“If they don’t hand out jail time, it wouldn't surprise me,” Fischer said. “We’re in Cuyahoga County. We deal with a lot of hard crimes. They have a fishing case, and their very next case might be a murder case. Quite frankly, fishing isn’t high on their agenda.”
Still, he believes the prosecutors did a “very good job” putting the case together, and he says the fishing community is happy to see the pair “lose something that matters to them.”
“Had they given them the boat back and put them in jail, so what?” he asked. “They got jail time, but then these jerks would still be out there on their boat enjoying what they want to enjoy. You took their boat, you took their right to fish, and you didn’t cost the state any extra money putting them in jail. For me, that’s a good thing.”
As for Runyan and Cominsky’s future in competitive fishing, Fischer doesn’t see them ever being allowed in another tournament anywhere in the country.
“They’ll never fish another event that I know of. Nobody that I know would let them fish an event, and I’d imagine nationwide people wouldn’t let them fish. Who would want that? I couldn’t see them fishing any actual sanctioned events anywhere,” he said.
Even if Cominsky isn’t sent to jail for putting weights in walleye, he could still wind up behind bars. Cominsky was also charged in October with stalking and harassment and was charged in February with conspiracy to commit forgery. Last summer, he pleaded not guilty to charges of domestic violence and unlawful restraint.
Cominsky and Runyan rocketed to the national spotlight when they tried to cheat in the Lake Erie Walleye Trail fishing tournament last fall. They stuffed their walleye with fishing weights and were nearly handed the $28,000 prize. But Fischer suspected the fish weighed more than they should, and his investigation revealed that the pair had stuffed their walleye with eight pounds of weights and fish filets.
Fischer broke down the whole incident when he appeared on The MeatEater Podcast last year.
Feature image via Lake Erie Walleye Trail Facebook.