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Big Rock Citation Saga ContinuesJune 13, 2011
Ticket that cost Citation 1 million was altered
A ticket for fishing without a license cost a team $1.2 million in last year's Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
Now that same ticket could help the team get its money back.
The crew on the Hatteras-based private boat Citation caught an 883-pound, tournament-record blue marlin to apparently win the top prize in last June's event. But minutes before the check was to be presented at the awards ceremony, mate Peter Wann failed a polygraph test when asked if he was a licensed angler when the tournament started.
At the insistence of the boat's owners, Wann turned himself over to North Carolina Marine Patrol officers the next morning. He was issued a ticket for a June 14 violation of state fishing regulations. The time on the citation was 7:13, when the team put the marlin on the scales the evening of the opening day of competition.
But at that time on that day, Wann was a licensed angler.
On the morning of Nov. 11, before the mate's appearance in Carteret District Court, a Marine Patrol officer changed information on the ticket, crossing out 7:13 as the time of the infraction and writing in "06:35 a.m." - the morning the boat left the dock and nearly 2-1/2 hours before fishing began. An assisting officer's name was also added to the form.
Wann's signature is on the original ticket, but he did not sign the changed version.
"Police change tickets all the time, and most of the time they get thrown out of court when that happens," said Andy Gay, the attorney representing Wann and the team. "This is selective prosecution, and they're trying to fix a mistake."
A spokesman for the state fisheries division said the agency doesn't monitor the amending of tickets and that the change would have been made only with the approval or urging of the district attorney. Several calls by The Virginian-Pilot to the Carteret County district attorney's office were not returned.
Wann and the team have appealed the judge's guilty verdict and a civil trial summary judgment in favor of tournament officials' decision to disqualify the team.
Both cases are pending and probably will be a topic of conversation at tonight's captains meeting for the start of next week's Big Rock tournament.
The ticket, the change to it and interpretations of the laws behind it are at the center of both cases.
If Wann wins his jury trial appealing the District Court verdict and is found not guilty of any fisheries violations, team members wonder, how can tournament officials disqualify the team?
"Peter Wann got on the boat that morning, prepared some of the baits and went to sleep," Gay said. "When fishing began, he was in federal waters where there is no state jurisdiction. When they returned to state waters, he was a licensed angler.
"When they put that fish on the dock, he was a licensed angler."
The court appeals are a stark contrast to the day on the water last June 14, when a man-vs.-beast battle resulted in the biggest blue marlin ever caught in the Big Rock's 52-year history.
Around 10 a.m., one of the boat's owners, Michael Topp, was manning the helm of the Citation while Capt. Eric Holmes took care of business below deck. When Topp spotted a school of tuna leaping out of the water in front of the boat, he quickly motored to the area known as "The Rocks."
A Black Bart lure being trolled behind the boat on the left outrigger was immediately struck. Another part-owner of the boat, Andy Thomasson, got into the fighting chair. Thomasson, who had had back surgery, was the designated tuna-fighter on the team because they didn't want to risk him hurting his back during a billfish fight, which can last hours.
But a big blue marlin is exactly what had struck the lure.
"We didn't know what was on until we got it to the boat several hours later," Topp said. "It stayed down and kept fighting."
Hours into the grueling tug-of-war, it was apparent that whatever was on the business end of the line was dead - likely with the line wrapped around its tail
and extremely difficult to reel in.
"We radioed in to ask if we had to keep the same angler on the rod the entire time, thinking the tournament was under IGFA (International Game Fish Association) rules," Topp said. "We had a stalemate... dead weight. They got back to us and said we could change anglers, hand-line... basically go to 'jungle rules' to get the fish up."
After what the team described as an "epic struggle where everything had to go just right," they brought their fish to the surface.
They were astounded when what they thought was a huge tuna turned out to be an even bigger blue marlin - a giant of a fish that was longer than the boat was wide.
"We couldn't believe it," Holmes said. "We were fighting with the rod and hand-lining for about two hours. When we finally got that thing through the tuna door, the bill was in the salon door and the tail was folded up against the transom."
The crew went crazy.
"It was a great feeling," Thomasson said. "Mike and I have been shot at in Vietnam and survived all kinds of stuff in war, and I don't know how to describe how we felt seeing that fish in the boat."
But on the ride back to Morehead City, Wann said, he realized he didn't have the paper copy of his license with him.
"I thought it might be back in my truck," said Wann, who currently is working on another Hatteras charter boat. "Eric told me to get the laptop from the salon and bring up the license online."
Wann said that when he got connected, the website "said it was active. So I was about 90 percent sure that it was good. But I was like, 'What's 30 bucks?' and figured I needed to make sure."
The state has determined Wann's license was expired at the time.
So Wann renewed his license and showed the page download to his captain.
"I was a little worried until then, but when he showed me the page I was OK," Holmes said. "I figured we were good to go."
And that's the way things stayed until tournament officials questioned Holmes before the awards ceremony, prompting them to subject Wann to a lie-detector test.
When Thomasson, Topp and the boat's third owner, Shawn Kooyman, went to the polygraph site, they found Holmes slumped over in tears - his wife also crying, her arms wrapped around him in support.
"We were all in shock," Thomasson said. "We didn't know anything about any license problem until that time. When we asked what was wrong, Eric said it looked like there was a problem. Peter was so upset he disappeared. We didn't see him until the next morning."
As word spread that prize checks would be held until a decision by the Big Rock committee, rumors started flying on fishing chat sites.
"We caught the fish the day before and had it tied to a buoy, we caught it outside the tournament boundaries, we bought it from a long-liner... you name it. They were all calling us cheats," said Topp, who like Thomasson is a decorated 30-year Army officer now retired. The two own a government-contract security firm in Richmond and are partners with Kooyman in a construction company.
"Our reputations were getting slammed all over the place," Topp said.
The final slap in the face, the men say, came when they were denied entry into this year's Big Rock tournament.
"These men have been honorable throughout, and the Big Rock is trying to make them look like hooligans and cheaters," said Gay, the team's lawyer.
Tournament director Crystal Hesmer said having the team compete would be a distraction from this year's festivities.
"Given the pending appeal between the parties, and to avoid any distractions from the charitable purposes of this tournament, it was in everyone's best interests that the Citation not register this year," she responded by email. "We want to focus on having another great tournament this year and raising money for charity."
Team members were floored. And growing mad.
"What a contradiction," Thomasson said. "Here we are, willing to show no hard feelings, pay our $18,000 or whatever it was, and help them with their charities and see if we could catch an even bigger fish. We had been discussing giving a large portion of our winnings to their charities, because, quite frankly, that was a lot of money and we wanted the tax write-off.
"None of this was ever about the money."
Big Rock officials have paid out the second- and third-place cash prizes from the 2010 tournament but are withholding the remaining money until results of the appeals.
Topp said he changed his mind about the money when the team was denied entry to next week's event.
"We're willing to take this to the state Supreme Court if we have to, because none of us have done anything wrong," he said. "Our reputations are at stake here, and somebody's gonna pay."
The team's lawyer plans to take issue with the change to Wann's ticket and with the interpretation of the law behind it.
Wann was charged with violating state statute 113-135, which makes fishing without a license for the first time a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Rex Lanier of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries said in an email that the basis for the charge stems from the state's definition of "take" in relation to the state's natural resources: "All operations during, immediately preparatory, and immediately subsequent to an attempt, whether successful or not, to capture, kill, pursue, hunt, or otherwise harm or reduce to possession any fisheries resources or wildlife resources."
That apparently is the basis for determining that a person getting ready to fish must have a license before engaging in what most people consider fishing.
But on a page captured from the state marine division website at the time of the tournament - provided by members of the Citation team - the regulations state: "The (Coastal Recreational Fishing License) is required to recreationally take finfish from the state's coastal fishing waters out to three miles in the ocean. Recreational anglers who catch fish in the Exclusive Economic Zone (between three and 200 miles off the coast) will be required to have this license to land fish in state waters."
"Which Peter Wann did," said Gay, the team's attorney. "According to their own law, he followed everything.
"The issue of immediately preparatory is vague at best. When is immediately preparatory? The night before when he was stripping line off the reels? When he was told weeks prior that he would be mating on the boat.... When?
"The point is, he was never fishing in state waters, and he had the required state license when he possessed a fish in state waters. Then you've got the amendment to the ticket issue because they made a mistake."
The rules referred to on a link from the tournament website no longer address the taking of fish in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
Ryke Longest, a director and senior lecturing fellow for the Duke University School of Law's environmental law and policy clinic, wrote a brief on the law before Wann's first case and testified as a witness.
"The law, as is now, is not enforceable outside the three-mile limit," Longest said. "They had all their necessary (Highly Migratory Species) permits, and when they were in state waters in possession of a fish, they all had required state licenses.
"I think the state has a problem, and it needs to fix it."
Lee Tolliver, (757) 222-5844, email@example.com