Though most of the victim was barbecued and eaten at a party, district attorneys won a confession from the man who stole the beloved 50-pound halibut Big Mama from her hatchery tank in Redondo Beach last month.
Taras Poznik, 24, was sentenced to six months in jail and six months in an alcohol treatment facility for the theft of Big Mama and 19 other fish, a crime that his lawyer said he committed in a drunken stupor.
“He was as drunk as a skunk. He didn’t know the value of the thing,” said defense attorney Laurie Belger. “In fact, he felt terrible when he found out everyone loved it like a pet.”
Poznik was also ordered Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and to repay the California Halibut Hatchery, the state’s only halibut hatchery, $50,000 to replace the fish whose eggs have helped repopulate waters around the state.
Poznik, an experienced diver and avid surfer, also volunteered to catch a replacement halibut, his lawyer said.
That offer was not accepted, and many in Redondo say that what Poznik did is unforgivable.
“Everyone is really outraged by this. The public in general is really disturbed by this crime,” said Redondo Beach Police Lt. John Skipper, who netted Poznik after finding fish carcasses and suspicious algae at the suspect’s Hermosa Beach home.
Among the most upset may be the party guests to whom Poznik served Big Mama and who later discovered that, “it was like eating Bambi,” Belger said.
Fourteen of those guests volunteered, many with tears of guilt and rage in their eyes, to testify against Poznik, his lawyer said.
For 10 years, Big Mama was the star attraction of an educational tour at the hatchery that teaches children about marine life.
Then, at a March 18 party in Manhattan Beach, Poznik offered to get fish for a barbecue that night. Many guests assumed he was going to a fish market, Belger said.
Instead, according to police, he climbed the fence at the halibut hatchery near the harbor in Redondo Beach, grabbed a pole off the wall, attached it to a net and began spearing halibut out of their tank. He took them back to the party.
“He just figured they’d get another one to replace it the next day,” said Belger. Hatchery officials, though, said the 25-year-old breeding halibut was irreplaceable.
Acting on tips, it took police less than a week to catch Poznik. At his residence, they found rotting fish and the other half of the pole that had been left lying next to Big Mama’s tank, police said.
At one point, prosecutors suggested that Poznik may have committed a hate crime when he butchered Big Mama, because police found swastikas scrawled in the guest book at the hatchery. That allegation was later dropped after handwriting analysis showed that Poznik was not likely to be the scribbler, Belger said. But that did not mean the judge or the community looked on Poznik with any more sympathy.
“I’ve represented 17 people for murder, and I’ve never had anyone so angry as these people were over a halibut,” Belger said. “Everyone in the whole South Bay wants to kill him.”
“This is a tragic situation,” Belger added. “But hopefully, this will force Poznik into a place where he can get some help.”