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Missouri fisherman's cheating charge makes him an outcast

Monday, May 14, 2007 | 1:20 a.m. CDT; updated 7:39 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

ST. LOUIS—An avid angler accused of cheating in a bass fishing tournament last month is finding that fellow fishermen aren't forgiving his transgression.

Gary Lee Jones, 60, of Poplar Bluff, faces a felony count of theft by deception. Just as painfully, perhaps, he faces the ire of his fishermen friends.

"What he did, he did to every fisherman. It's like a brotherhood," said Skeeter Law, owner of a boat shop frequented by Jones. "He's done lost any kind of trust that he had."

Those who know Jones say he was good enough to compete in tournaments.

Fishing is a serious part of life around Lake Wappapello, about 150 miles south of St. Louis.

Competitive fishing — a race to see who brings in the greatest total weight of fish — brings big cash prizes.

Cheating isn't new to the sport. Fishermen have been caught using frozen fish, fish hidden in secret compartments, fish tied to hidden lines.

Tournaments use lie detectors to ask winners whether their catches were made that day. Jones took a lie-detector test at a competition two years ago after placing second, and passed. There were rumors he cheated, but his friends stood up for him, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Last month, a fisherman and his son told police they had seen Jones on the lake on April 28, the day before the 2007 Angler's Choice/Bass Quest Tournament.

Jones spent his time next to a floating duck blind, raising officers' suspicions.

State conservation agent Mic Plunkett and a state water patrol officer found two live bass with red nylon cords looped through their mouths and tied to the duck blind, Plunkett said. They marked the fish by punching a tiny hole in one fin on each bass.

The next day, as 38 boats pushed off into Lake Wappapello, Jones headed for the duck blind cove in his boat and waited until the other competitors had cleared out, authorities said.

Plunkett and a water patrol officer, dressed in camouflage, waited on shore about 60 feet away. Plunkett lay behind a log with a video camera — also camouflaged —poking over the top.

They watched as Jones reached into the water, pulled up the bass, cut the line and placed the fish in his boat's aerated holding tank, according to Plunkett.

At the official weigh-in that afternoon, Jones turned in four bass for a total of 11.55 pounds _ to win second place. He also had a single five-pound fish to take third in the Biggest Bass category. Jones was awarded a silver trophy plaque and his check for $886. Organizers snapped his photo while authorities inspected Jones' catch. They found the marked fish.

As Jones accepted congratulations, he was placed under arrest. Word of the undercover operation quickly spilled through the crowd. Applause broke out. Several fishermen shook the officers' hands.

"I've never had that large of a crowd be that enthusiastic about someone getting arrested," said Jeff Johnson of the water patrol. "That was something different."

Jones is no longer welcome at boat shops and other dealers he used to frequent. "I hate to say it, but he's been blackballed," Law said.

Jones goes on trial July 17, and faces two to seven years in prison.

"I wish he'd come in one more time," Law said, "so I could tell him — I wouldn't be hateful — but to tell him he let his friends down."


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