Large-scale poaching probe continues to uncover crime

Columbus — After more than two years of tracking down leads and tips – as well as extensive investigative operations by 45 of its officers – the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife has to date seen charges brought against 28 Ohioans for various forms of illegal fish and game activity.

The charges stemming from the agency’s “Operation North Coast” range from such routine and mundane misdemeanor violations as hunting without the permission of the landowner and one deer-check-in issue, to felony charges that include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, and felony sale of wildlife.

Several of the accused individuals have pleaded out to at least some of their charges, say officials with the wildlife division.

Also, at least one of the individuals currently charged with fish or game law violations has encountered prior arrests for breaking the state’s fish and game laws.

Ohio’s wildlife division officials first made public its Operation North Coast in early March, as reported in the March 29 issue of Ohio Outdoor News.

At the time, the agency reported that Operation North Coast was still an ongoing investigation that involved some 40 individuals in 10 of Ohio’s 88 counties, and that the wildlife division had received various courts’ permission to serve search warrants.

Counties where arrest warrants have thus far been obtained include Wood, Lucas, Henry, Lorain, and Richland.

Wildlife division spokesman John Windau said in an interview with Ohio Outdoor News in March that the agency’s law enforcement agents’ work included at least two deer-hunting seasons plus last summer’s walleye fishing season.

Some of the investigative work was done secretively by the wildlife division’s corps of undercover commissioned agents, added Ronald L. Ollis, supervisor of the agency’s special operations wing.

Ollis said that the wildlife division continues to investigate other individuals who may have committed state fish and game law violations. If the wildlife division determines that additional people have broken the state’s fish and game laws, then likely more charges will be forthcoming, Ollis said.

“I don’t know if Operation North Coast is the largest investigation we’ve ever done or not,” Ollis said. “Certainly, if additional charges are brought against others then, yes, it could become the largest such operation in our history.”

As for the suspected crimes themselves, Ollis noted that the “big fish” sought in the investigation were those suspected of selling fish and game, although some buyers of such wildlife were targeted, as well.

Besides the state’s allegations that illegal selling of fish and game occurred, there was evidence that suggested that “gross over-harvesting” of deer occurred in at least some instances, Windau said in March.

Also at that time, Windau said that the investigation was in large part prompted by calls to the state’s Turn-In-A-Poacher (TIP) hotline – a toll-free telephone project that allows the public to call in with possible fish and game violations. Tipsters are potentially eligible for monetary rewards.

Windau also said that, while the investigation did not have a deliberate “connect-the-dots” scenario about it, Operation North Coast investigators were able to channel their energies and look to suspicions of similar illegal activity elsewhere, thereby creating a cascade effect.

Similarly, Windau said in March that the wildlife division was working closely with various county prosecutors, who are the persons legally empowered to file charges.

Following the initial reports in March, wildlife division officials maintained a collective bell of silence covering its agents’ investigations through the remainder of the spring and into the summer.

As the process has unfolded, the wildlife division said in a statement on Aug. 4 that its agents served an arrest warrant on Robert Mandon Freeworth (age 36), of Grand Rapids, Ohio.

Freeworth was indicted by a Wood County grand jury earlier this month. He was indicted on charges for felony and misdemeanor counts for fish and game misdeeds. The felony charges include: engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, sales of wildlife, having weapons under disability, improperly handling firearms in a motor vehicle (three counts), tampering with records (two counts), and aggravated possession of drugs.

Freeworth’s alleged misdemeanors include: using weapons while intoxicated (two counts), jacklighting, hunting without permission of the landowner, and other wildlife violations (three counts).

If convicted, Freeworth faces incarceration, fines, wildlife restitution, community control sanctions, suspension or revocation of any fishing and hunting licenses, the reimbursement of investigative costs, and the forfeiture of firearms and a vehicle.

Further, wildlife division officials say, Wood County’s assistant prosecuting attorney, Gwen Howe-Gebers, has been working with state wildlife investigators on the case.

“The investigation was well executed and prepared, which is a testament to the ODNR investigative unit in making sure rules and regulations are followed by all,” Howe-Gebers said in a prepared statement. “The cases demonstrate that those who hunt illegally need to be held accountable for their actions.”

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