‘Sinker stinkers’ scandal ends in short prison term

Are fishing doers sorry they cheated, or sorry they got caught?

Most of us thought the news we were waiting for would be as gloomy as our weather, which was why the Fish or Cut Bait Society’s clubhouse was crowded that afternoon. Even fishing-doers are smart enough to get out of the rain.

Only our mascot, Sailor the Wonder Dog, looked optimistic. We should have realized he knew something we didn’t, but we’re not that smart.

Suddenly, a Parisian police siren sounded off. It was Tiller’s phone ringing. Tiller is chairman of our steering committee. The call was from Buckeye Bucky, our agent in Ohi Yo.

That’s how Ohio is pronounced in Cleveland, where Bucky was covering a courthouse event for us — The Case of the Sinker Stinkers.

Tiller set his phone on “speaker” so all could hear.

“Jail!” Bucky cried with joy in his voice. “They’re going to jail!”

“Hip, hip, hooray!” we shouted back. Sailor barked happily.

It’s been a month since our last report on the Crime of the Century, so I should remind you that it’s about those two losers who were caught cheating to win a walleye tournament on Lake Erie.

(According to CNN’s online report on the case, a walleye is some kind of fish. Really! Now everyone knows.)

Anyway: At a Cleveland tournament last Sept. 30, two suspiciously successful walleye tournament fishermen named Runyan and Cominsky tried to win glory and $28,760 with a five-fish catch that weighed a total of 33.91 pounds.

Something that maybe everyone does not know about walleye is that it’s probably impossible for five of them to weigh that much.

The tournament director knew, so he cut the fish open. Out poured seven pounds of leaden egg sinkers.

I won’t dazzle you with details of how that’s a crime, except to say it’s more than one. Runyan and Cominsky were arrested. As their trial was about to begin in March, they pleaded guilty to two charges cheating and unlawful possession of wild animals.

The state agreed to drop two other felony charges and ask the judge to sentence them to six months’ probation, no jail time, fines ($2,500 each), a three-year suspension of their Ohi Yo fishing licenses and forfeiture of their boat.

It’s a Ranger FS 622 with a 400 horsepower Mercury outboard, already seized as evidence. Depending on who says so, it’s worth something between $100,000 and $125,000.

That’s all we were expecting, so we were satisfied when we heard Bucky say they were going to jail.

“How many years?” Tiller asked him.

“Ten days,” Bucky told him.

“Ten years?” Tiller asked. He’s a little hard of hearing.

“No, Tiller. Ten days,” Bucky repeated.

“Boooo!” we all hollered. Sailor the Wonder Dog howled.

Bucky said cheating in Ohio is attempted theft, a fifth degree felony (so is burglary), usually good for six months to a year in prison.

We all hollered boooo! again because we think the crooks deserved the max and also because we thought the max should be 10 years — unless we fish in Ohi Yo and we are the ones cheated and our homes are the ones that are burgled. We would demand 20 years for that.

Bucky said our objections were matched all along Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline.

“It’s righteous indignation from Toledo to Ashtabula, ” he told us. “Fishing-doers have been on live teevy — weeping, wailing, gnashing their teeth and rending their garments, which some viewers may find disturbing.

“People are saying they’re going to call their state legislators as soon as they find out who they are, and demand stronger penalties for cheating in fishing tournaments.”

Bucky told us the prosecutor told the judge that investigators inspecting the convicts’ boat found a secret compartment under the helm:

“They said it stunk of fish,” Bucky said.

“Woof?” Sailor the Wonder Dog asked.

“Did a fish-sniffing police dog find it?” Tiller translated.

“No, they use cats for that,” Bucky replied.

The investigators reckoned the hiding place supports a popular theory of how the convicts had been able to dominate a series of tournaments called the Lake Erie Walleye Trail.

“Tournament boats are inspected before fishing begins, to make sure there are no fish already on the boat,” Bucky told us. “Why would there be, you ask?

I blush to tell you that a cheater could accumulate larger fish over time, tuck their tummies full of sinkers, stash some on his boat on tournament day, and enter them at weigh-in to win the prize money.

“People here believe that was the purpose of the hiding place on the cheaters’ boat. I bet you fellows in Florida can’t imagine anything that wicked, but we can.”

Jason Fischer, who runs the Lake Erie Walleye Trail, told the court that Runyan and Cominsky had won an astonishing nine of his 19 events and had been among the leaders 11 times.

No other team had won more than twice.

Along the way, that changed popular inference from jealousy to suspicion, but there wasn’t any proof of dishonesty — not until the dark hour in Cleveland when seven pounds of 12 and 8-ounce sinkers fell from the bellies of fish that don’t eat solid lead.

The state had played video, taken by a witness, that showed the fish being weighed, then opened and the sinkers shaken out as other fishing-doers uttered words I dare not repeat here.

Other than its evidentiary value, the video assured that the judge, Steven Gall, knew what a walleye is without looking up CNN’s news report.

He may have known anyway. Before passing sentence he mentioned that when he was a boy his father took him fishing, and that later he took his own son fishing.

When called upon to speak for themselves, both convicts made statements of regret. That’s a way of apologizing or not quite apologizing, depending on precisely what is regretted.

Cominsky told Judge Gall as follows:

“I want to apologize to my family, my friends, the fishing community. I feel embarrassed.”

Bucky said the man looked and sounded sincere, even if he was only sorry for getting caught.

Runyan said “I’m ashamed. It’s the most ignorant decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Bucky said that one neither looked nor sounded sincere, unless he was referring to the decision to feed those fish seven pounds of lead instead of, say, seven ounces. Seven ounces might have done the trick without arousing suspicion.

“That was definitely ignorant,” Bucky said. “I give him credit for being ashamed of it.”

As the handcuffed sinners were led along a corridor toward the Cuyahoga County Jail, Bucky followed. He got as far as the booking desk, where the convicts’ fingertips were being inked.

“WTH are you and WTH are you doing here?” the sergeant asked him.

“I am Buckeye Bucky, and I followed these fellows to offer to hold the keys,” he answered. “You wouldn’t want those to get lost, would you?”

The sergeant said she wouldn’t want that, but she wanted Bucky to get lost unless he wanted to spend some more time there.

“Nice try anyway,” she said.