Two professional walleye anglers received fines and jail time Thursday morning for cheating in a walleye fishing tournament on Lake Erie last year, concluding a highly publicized scandal that turned the national spotlight on competitive fishing.
Defendants Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan had been on track to win a Sept. 30 Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament, some $28,000 in prize money, and Team of the Year. But as an Ohio state prosecutor noted during the sentencing hearing Thursday, tournament directors had grown suspicious of the team’s “curiously unprecedented run of success” leading up to that tournament. Shortly after weighing in their walleyes, the teammates were discovered to have stuffed their catch with lead weights and walleye filets.
Judge Steven E. Gall delivered their punishment in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court of Ohio. Both Cominsky and Runyan had plead guilty to felony charges of cheating, attempted grand theft, possessing criminal tools, and a final charge related to unlawful ownership of wild animals (the last charge refers to the walleye fillets included with the weights). All charges were delivered by a Cuyahoga County grand jury on Oct. 12.
The hearing ended when Cominsky, now 36, and Runyan, now 43, were handcuffed and taken into custody to begin a 10-day jail sentence, after which they will be released on probation for a year and a half.
Cominsky and Runyan were also fined $2,500, half of which Gall said he would suspend if they made charitable contributions to a children’s fishing non-profit, mentioning organizations like Cast for Kids and the Ike Foundation. Both men also received the maximum three-year suspension of their fishing licenses. Cominsky’s Ranger boat and trailer, which had previously been seized during the execution of a search warrant, were also forfeited.
The prosecution noted Thursday that the fishing boat was not only likely purchased using winnings from illegally won tournaments, but that it was also a “criminal tool” that helped Cominsky and Runyan actively cheat during the tournament.
“When the ODNR law enforcement officers executed a warrant and seized that boat and photographed that boat, they found a compartment on that boat that literally smelled fishy,” said assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor James Gallagher. “And [it] was sort of customized to have a secret compartment that would enable these defendants to conceal—whether it be fish that they caught the day before or the lead weights that would allow them to potentially pass a boat inspection.”
The prosecution presented photos of a metal faceplate underneath the Ranger’s console. Officials noted that the screws, which normally keep it watertight, had been removed.
“It smelled particularly foul when they opened it up,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher also played video footage captured at the tournament ahead of including footage of Runyan and Cominsky’s weigh-in, tournament director Jason Fischer’s discovery of the lead-stuffed walleye, and the crowd’s furious reaction.
“I’ve run approximately 19 events [since 2019]. The defendants in this case have won nine of those  events, and 11 top finishes in total. So over 50 percent of my events they’ve done well in. And I read a statistic somewhere that somebody who steals or is a thief gets caught approximately one out of 48 times,” Fischer told the court in a victim impact statement, adding that the next closest finisher had won just two events in total. “I treated them as my friends, I worked on their boats, I talked to them, I called them, I defended them many times against my own friends.”
The professional fishing community, Fischer said, had received substantial negative publicity as a result of Cominsky and Runyan’s actions. As a result, the Lake Erie Walleye Trail was not able to renew its permits for this year’s competition.
“We had to move events because Cleveland Metro Parks didn’t want the drama you just saw,” Fischer said, referring to the videos of the angry crowd.
Defense attorney Gregory Gentile said that Cominsky and Runyan have suffered “seemingly endless negative public humiliation” since the cheating scandal, but that they have accepted full responsibility for their actions.
While the defense anticipated the three-year fishing license suspension, Gentile says his clients’ actions have already created what’s “effectively a lifetime suspension for them. They’re never going to fish a tournament again… When they go on a date, apply for a job, this case is going to come up.”
Both defendants spoke on their own behalf just ahead of sentencing.
“I just want to apologize to you, Your Honor, apologize to my family, my friends, the fishing community,” Cominsky said. He also apologized directly to Fischer, looking across the room at the tournament director. “I feel embarrassed. Super embarrassed. It was a bad action that we made, I will live with it for the rest of my life, and it’s something that my kids will probably end up seeing while growing up. It really hurts. I wish I could take it back.”
“This is embarrassing, I’m ashamed, most ignorant decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Runyan said, also apologizing to Fischer and the community in a short statement.
Just before delivering the 10-day jail sentence and concluding the hearing, Judge Gall addressed the two men.
“I do genuinely believe that you gentlemen are remorseful,” Gall said Thursday. “But there is a consideration for deterrence, which I think is also [an] equally important consideration.”
Gall initially handed down a 30-day jail sentence but suspended it. Violation of probation will result in a 12-month prison sentence.
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