Evidence in the Operation North Coast deer poaching case is shown. Some of the trophy mounts will be used by park districts and other entities for educational purposes, while others will be destroyed. OHIO DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
BOWLING GREEN — The ringleader of a large-scale wildlife poaching operation is going to prison.
Robert Mandon Freeworth, 37, of Grand Rapids, Ohio, has been sentenced to four years in prison by Wood County Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey for a pattern of corrupt activity that included shooting deer at night, shooting deer out of season, hunting without permission, improperly handling a firearm in a motor vehicle, the illegal sale of venison, tampering with records, and additional wildlife violations.
Freeworth, who pleaded guilty in December, was also ordered to pay $5,513.03 in restitution for deer he killed illegally, and forfeit 51 items that were seized in a March, 2016, raid by officers of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. Those forfeited items included two rifles, a muzzleloader, a sport utility vehicle, numerous trophy deer mounts, deer parts, and venison.
As part of the plea agreement for Monday’s sentencing, Freeworth will also lose his hunting privileges for 18 years, commencing with his release from jail. Although Freeworth’s case was not one of the largest deer poaching operations the state has seen, his prison sentence was not the norm but came about because of the number of felonies that involved the possession of a firearm, according to a wildlife officer close to the case.
Gwen Howe-Gebers, a former assistant Wood County prosecutor who worked the case, said Freeworth broke all the rules: hunting on other people’s property without permission, jacklighting, selling venison, and having other people register tags in their names after he was over his limit.
“Those who are avid hunters follow the rules as set out by ODNR,” Ms. Howe-Gebers said. “Mr. Freeworth stretched those rules, violated those rules all to benefit himself.”
She said his crimes were widespread and deserving of prison time.
“There has to be some punishment to say to the hunters, these rules are there for a reason, and it’s so that everyone can enjoy the sport of hunting,” she said. “It’s people like Mr. Freeworth who then ruin it for everyone else.”
Freeworth was nabbed during Operation North Coast, a wide-ranging investigation in the northern tier of Ohio that eventually resulted in charges being filed against more than 40 people in 10 Ohio counties. The investigation, which included work by undercover officers, came about as the result of complaints made to the Division of Wildlife by landowners, sportsmen, and concerned citizens regarding illegal hunting and the sales of wildlife.
Ron Ollis, special operations supervisor with the ODNR Division of Wildlife, said the investigation involved multiple entities and jurisdictions.
“We received numerous complaints on Mr. Freeworth, with tips from different avenues, and we were able to put an investigation in place and document many violations,” he said. “It was very clear this was an enterprise involving a number of people and the widespread illegal taking of deer and the selling of venison.”
In March of 2016, more than 45 state wildlife officers and investigators executed search warrants and conducted interviews with dozens of subjects across the Lake Erie corridor. There were 22 individuals from the Toledo area originally charged in the case, for violations ranging from the illegal sale and purchase of wildlife, failure to maintain proper taxidermy records, receiving stolen property, felony sale of sportfish, theft by deception, and the illegal use of the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
At the request of defense attorney Pete Rost, the court granted Freeworth permission to delay reporting to jail to begin serving his sentence for two weeks, so he could be with an ill family member. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Freeworth must serve at least two years of his sentence, and would be eligible for release at that point, but his release would have to be approved by the court.
A source close to the Freeworth case confirmed that any venison seized during the raid would be donated to area food pantries, if it had been commercially processed and cared for before the seizure. Some of the trophy mounts will be used by park districts and other entities for educational purposes, while others will be destroyed.
The Operation North Coast investigation also uncovered a scam perpetrated by two local individuals during a contest in the spring of 2016 sponsored by the Maumee Tackle bait shop. The rules required that all fish entered in the contest must be caught in the Maumee River, between Orleans Park and Jerome Road, with cash prizes going to the teams weighing in the heaviest five-fish catches.
In the course of the Operation North Coast investigation, wildlife officers found that Matthew Langlois of Waterville and Lawrence Turner of Toledo took fish they had caught in Lake Erie and entered them in the Maumee Tackle contest, and claimed one of the top prizes in the event. They were charged with theft by deception, but pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and were found guilty.
The pair were ordered to pay back the $375 in prize money they had fraudulently claimed, and fined $250 each plus court costs. They were also forbidden from entering any tournaments on the river for a period of three years, and ordered not to have any contact with Maumee Tackle for that same time frame. They had 30-day jail sentences suspended and will serve probation for the next three years.
Most of those charged in the original northwest Ohio phase of the case worked out plea deals or were found guilty, and paid fines, restitution, and court costs amounting to $21,591.11. Their cases went through eight different jurisdictions — Henry County, Wood County, and Lucas County, plus Sylvania, Toledo, Bowling Green, Napoleon, and Maumee municipal courts.
The cases involving the Cleveland area suspects are still under investigation, or in the sentencing phase, a source with the Ohio Division of Wildlife said Thursday.
Blade reporter Jennifer Feehan contributed to this story.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.