Tuesday, April 5, 2016

UPDATED THROUGHOUT Ohio Division of Wildlife's "Operation North Coast" investigation nears conclusion

The Ohio Division of Wildlife’s investigation into alleged illegal selling of fish and game continues, though agency officials believe its investigative agents “are getting close” to submitting their findings to local prosecutors and possibly to respective grand juries.
Called “Operation North Coast,” the investigation began about two deer-hunting seasons back along with last year’s Lake Erie walleye-fishing season, Wildlife Division officials have said.

So intense and comprehensive is “Operation North Coast’s” on-going investigation that it will “easily eclipse the agency’s ‘Operation Clanbake, or any other deer-related case to date,” says Ron Ollis, the Wildlife Division’s Special Operations Supervisor.
 “We are still in the process of reviewing the immense amount of evidence seized during ‘Operation North Coast,’ ” said Ollis.“ Wildlife officers and investigators continue to work through the evidence, scoring antlered deer, comparing harvest records with the tags on the deer and information provided during the interviews and seized records.”

Initially, “Operation North Coast,” led to the issuance of five search warrants and the interviewing of around 40 individuals, also says John Windau, agency spokesman.

Potentially impacted county prosecutors include those from Wood, Erie, Ottawa, Lorain, Portage, Richland, Cuyahoga, and Ashtabula counties.

Charges are expected against at least some individuals for various alleged illegal activities discovered in the course of the investigation and subsequent and related agency-driven efforts, both Ollis and Windau say.

“We are beginning to set meeting dates with prosecutors to discuss what is known so far. In some of those meetings, decisions will be made on whether misdemeanor charges are appropriate, or if dates should be set for grand juries,” says Ollis.

Windau also said the agents’ work included at least two deer-hunting seasons plus last summer’s walleye-fishing season.

Besides the possibility of alleged illegal selling of fish and game there is evidence that suggests there was some “gross over-harvesting” of deer in at least some instances, Windau said as well.

The genesis of the investigation, Windau said, was in part prompted by calls to the states Turn-In-A-Poacher (TIP) hotline; a toll-free telephone project that allows the public to call in with possible fish and game law violations. Tipsters are potentially eligible for monetary rewards.
Ollis explained further that the agency also employed surveillance and observation, along with “good old fashioned ‘game-warden’ work.

“There was a great deal of under-cover work, (too),” Ollis said.

And because of the investigation’s enormous scope, says Ollis, the Wildlife Division’s four-point law-enforcement project’s protocols include continued evaluation of the “mountains of evidence and statements,” along with any public disclosure of individual names for alleged illegal activity when and if charges are filed.

By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

 Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. Jeff is the recipient of more than 125 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.



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