March 28, 2023
In a criminal case that generated widespread attention all over the country last fall, two men accused of cheating in an Ohio walleye fishing tournament have pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on Monday. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office announced the development in a press release.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley said Jacob Runyan, 43, and Chase Cominsky, 36, pleaded guilty to Cheating and the Unlawful Ownership of Wild Animals, stemming from charges after the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament last September. The two were charged after lead weights were found inside their creel by tournament officials. The men had originally entered a not-guilty plea, according to reports.
"This plea is the first step in teaching these crooks two basic life lessons," O’Malley said in the news release. "Thou shall not steal, and crime does not pay."
The pleas come after an investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) following the tournament weigh-in on Sept. 30, 2022. That's when authorities say Runyan, of Broadview Heights, Ohio, and Cominsky, of Hermitage, Pa., competed at the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament and eventually tried to weigh in suspicious fish. Had Runyan and Cominsky won with their five heaviest walleye, authorities say they would have been awarded a total prize of $28,760.
But before that could happened, tournament director Jason Fischer grew suspicious during the weigh-in when the duo's submitted fish didn’t look as heavy as the official scale showed. As anglers from several states watched on, Fischer discovered the ruse, and the suspected anglers were caught lead-handed.
Fischer looked closer at the walleye turned in by Runyan and Cominsky, and realized there was a problem when he squeezed a fish and reportedly felt something unusual inside. As was noted by Game & Fish last fall, at least one fish was then cut open, and Fischer exclaimed, "We’ve got weights in fish." In seconds, an angry scene ensued as competitors yelled out at the pair of suspected cheaters.
Within hours, news outlets ranging from the Associated Press, Fox News, New York Times and even Sports Illustrated had all picked up the story, which went viral on social media. Some news reports even embedded videos of the chaotic scene, including footage on YouTube that has now been viewed at least 2.2 million times.
According to the Cuyahoga County news release, 10 weights were located inside the walleyes, eight weighing 12 ounces and two weighing eight ounces. That was in addition to several walleye filets stuffed inside the fish as well, all designed to increase their weight total on the tournament scale. Authorities noted the two were immediately disqualified from the tournament and instructed to leave. Additionally, Cleveland Metroparks Police Department responded to the turbulent scene.
Authorities reportedly dropped two of the original charges (attempted grand theft and possessing criminal tools) in accepting Monday's plea agreement. The prosecutor's office said Runyan and Cominsky pleaded guilty to one count of Cheating, a felony of the fifth degree, and a charge that resulted in an Oct. 11, 2022 forfeiture of a $100,000 fishing rig used in the tournament. In addition, the two men pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of Unlawful Ownership of Wild Animals.
Sentencing for Runyan and Cominsky is expected May 11, the prosecutor’s office said.
What will happen in the sentencing hearing remains to be seen, but according to the Associated Press, James Gallagher, an assistant prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, said authorities are planning to recommend six-month probations for both men, and the expungement of their convictions if they successfully complete the terms of the probation.
The AP also reported court records indicated that Runyan and Cominsky were investigated previously for an event near Toledo in the spring of 2022. The duo was accused of cheating in that particular walleye tournament, but a police report reportedly indicated prosecutors concluded there was not enough evidence charge them.
The case is one in a surprisingly sizeable list of fishing-tournament cheating scandals through the years according to this report.