Did a fisherman fairly catch a prizewinning marlin? A judge will decide, and $2.8 million is at stake
Fishermen are known to tell tales.
But a federal judge in Baltimore is being asked to determine the outcome of a Maryland fishing tournament after organizers said the man who was initially declared the winner of a $2.8-million first prize twice failed a lie-detector test.
Billed as “the world’s largest billfish tournament,” the tournament spans a week in August and takes place off Ocean City, about 100 miles southeast of Baltimore on the Maryland’s Atlantic shore. There’s no oversight on the open water, so those who win $50,000 or more are required by contest rules to take a polygraph test.
“There’s no policeman out in the ocean,” said Jim Motsko, president of the tournament. To keep it from being a “free-for-all, we learned real quick, you got to have rules and stick with them.”
The big winner of this year’s tournament, Philip G. Heasley of Naples, Fla., caught the winning 76.5-pound white marlin but later failed two polygraph tests, according to the court filings.
Heasley was not awarded the prize money, and organizers are asking a federal judge to grant an “order of interpleader,” which would allow them to redistribute the $2.8-million prize among 13 competitors who won other categories.
The complaint accuses Heasley of using “countermeasures” during the polygraph tests and alleges he was “deceptive” when he responded to questions about whether he violated the fishing tournament rules and whether he had been truthful in his answers to the polygraph test questions.
Heasley and the three others aboard the boat Kallianassa when the winning marlin was caught all failed a polygraph examination.
The complaint says that on the “catch report,” where participants mark down when a fish was caught, it appeared the time written down had been changed from 8:15 a.m. to 9:05 a.m. Had the fish been caught before 8:30 a.m., it would have been a violation of tournament rules.
Heasley has denied committing any violation and questioned the validity of the polygraph tests, according to court filings. He has also noted that he was presented a first-place trophy and check at the awards ceremony held the Saturday after the weeklong event, identifying him as the rightful winner.
As to the incorrect time on the catch report, his attorneys wrote that it was an error and was changed to “reflect the correct time that the winning white marlin was caught.”
Heasley did not respond for requests for comment.
In addition to Heasley, the 13 other anglers who won other categories in the tournament are named in the filing because they would receive additional money if a judge rules against Heasley.
With such high stakes, fishing competitions have specific rules about when, where and how fish can be caught. Tournament organizers use various measures to make sure competitors comply with the rules. Before polygraph tests became widespread, tournament organizers often had biologists certify results. Some even used a special gadget to determine the freshness of a fish.
Martin L. Gary, the executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, based in Virginia, previously worked as a fisheries biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and was often called to inspect winning fish at competitions around the state.
“You added an air of professionalism. We might be that presence, that deterrence,” he said.
Gary said it was not uncommon to hear stories about fishermen who would catch a fish days before a competition and keep it on ice. Another trick was sticking ice cubes down the fish’s gullet to add weight.
Given the high stakes in the White Marlin Open, he said, the organizers have to require the polygraph tests.
“The whole town is vested in that contest,” he said. “It draws people from all over.”
At the Department of Natural Resources, Gary helped run the annual the Maryland Fishing Challenge, which ran about a decade and offered prizes including boats, trucks and cash.
In the initial years of the competition, Gary said they didn’t rely on polygraph tests, but later started using a polygraph examiner from the Maryland Natural Resources Police. When they started requiring the test, Gary recalled, some competitors balked and others failed, but none disputed the findings.
“The polygraph was an effective tool,” he said.
Anderson writes for the Baltimore Sun.
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