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Fisherman's cheating charge makes him an outcast

5/14/2007

POPLAR BLUFF, MO. — Back before he was accused of cheating in the bass
fishing tournament, before police caught him in an elaborate sting, Gary Lee
Jones would drop by Buck's Outboard Motors shop almost every morning. He'd
grab some coffee, sit down at the green picnic table with the other
regulars, and talk fishing.

Jones, 60, is an avid angler. A divorcé with no family nearby, he sometimes
stayed at the shop for hours. He had friends here. So when he placed second
in a fishing tournament two weeks ago, the regulars expected he would show
up the next morning to crow about it, just as he did after the week
before.

But his moment of triumph — his trophy plaque and $886 — was the one that
got away. He left the winner's circle that day in handcuffs, facing a felony
count of theft by deception. Fishermen at the boat ramp cheered his arrest.
Others were moved to anger. Fishermen can forgive all kinds of
transgressions, but not cheating.

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

It was not only trust. In that instant, Jones lost more than he could have
imagined.

He really could fish

Those who have gone on the lake with Jones say he
knows which honey holes to explore, where the big bass hide and which bait
makes the fish bite. He had a job that allowed him to fish sometimes five
days a week. Jones was good enough to compete in tournaments.

"He would've won a tournament eventually, if he'd done it the right way,"
said Don Selvidge, another regular at Law's.

Fishing is a serious part of life in this area about 150 miles south of St.
Louis. A bass boat in the front yard is a common sight. Traffic backs up at
the boat ramps on weekends. Local obituaries regularly mention the
deceased's passion for the sport.

Competitive fishing — a race to see who brings in the greatest total weight
of fish — began to catch on in the 1960s. National circuits formed. Now
tournaments are broadcast on television. Professional fishermen look like
NASCAR drivers, with shirts and hats covered in sponsorship patches. The top
pro circuit offers $9.5 million in prizes annually. Dozens of smaller tournaments promise bass boats and up to $40,000 in prizes
per tournament.

But with the competition comes cheating. Fishermen have been caught using
frozen fish, fish hidden in secret compartments, fish tied to hidden lines.
Last week, a Kentucky man received a suspended sentence for hiding bass in a
submerged fish basket. He and his partner, who also was charged, had tried to walk away with a $30,000 bass boat at a championship on Lake Barkley, Ky.

Even the smallest tournaments are on guard. They 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, according to
organizers. He passed. There were rumors he cheated, but his friends stood
up for him.

"We wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt," Law said.

This time, authorities say, there was no doubt.

It started with a tip

A fisherman and his son told police they had seen
Jones on the lake on Saturday, April 28, the day before the tournament. Many
fishermen make practice runs. But Jones spent his time next to a floating
duck blind, raising officers' suspicions.

Just before dusk, after the lake was clear, state conservation agent Mic
Plunkett and a state water patrol officer set out in a boat to investigate.
They found two live bass with red nylon cords looped through their mouths
and tied to the duck blind, Plunkett said. They marked the fish, with
Plunkett punching a tiny hole in one fin on each bass. They formed a plan,
but they needed to hurry.

At 6 a.m. the next day, the 2007 Angler's Choice/Bass Quest Tournament
kicked off.

Thirty-eight boats pushed off into Lake Wappapello, a sprawling man-made
lake. Everyone fished in pairs, except for Jones. He told organizers his
daughter was unable to make it.

Jones headed for the duck blind cove in his red Ranger bass boat and waited
until the other competitors had cleared out, according to authorities.

Plunkett and Jeff Johnson of the water patrol, 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 — good enough for 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. Organizers snapped his photo
while authorities inspected Jones' catch. They found the marked fish.

Rodney Enderle of Jackson, Mo., stood in the crowd. He finished in 12th
place. He looked around and noticed several water patrol officers and deputy
sheriffs. "I guess everybody is interested in bass fishing this year,"
Enderle recalled thinking.

As Jones accepted congratulations, a water patrol officer stepped forward.
Jones was 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," Johnson said. "That was something different."

But Enderle had another thought. The previous weekend he had organized a
Bassbusters of Southeast Missouri tournament on the same lake. Jones placed
second in that competition, too, winning $650. Enderle felt like he had been
robbed twice. "I wanted to grab him by the throat and wring him," Enderle
said.

A fishing outcast

Lee is no longer welcome at Buck's shop. The folks at Dennis Outdoors down the road don't want to see him either. "I know all the dealers in town, and they say they won't sell to him," Law said. "I hate to say it, but he's been
blackballed."

Jones declined, through his attorney, to comment. He seems to have moved out
of his house in Poplar Bluff. When people run into him at the gas station or
a restaurant, they say Jones refuses to make eye contact. He makes a quick
exit through another door.

"Nobody wants to claim to even know him.," said D.J. Ellis, a regular at
Buck's who has known Jones for years. "He's ashamed of himself, I guess."

Jones has a July 17 trial date. He faces two to seven years in prison,
though few expect him to serve time.

"The embarrassment of it will be much worse than the eventual outcome," said
Don Moore, a local attorney who stopped in at Buck's.

Seeking approval

Skeeter Law stands behind the counter at his motor shop on a recent morning.
There's still coffee in the pot, still room at the picnic table.

Terry Collins, a mechanic, sits down with a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a
grape soda. They consider why Jones cheated. It was not greed, they said. He
was after not money, but approval. He wanted to be accepted by Skeeter,
Terry, D.J. and the others.

"He just wanted to prove to them he could catch fish and he was just as good
they are," Law said.

And Jones was good. Law had seen him make several big catches.

No doubt, fishermen might fib about the size of their catches or about the
one that got away. But Jones crossed a sacred line that day out on the lake.
It doesn't make sense to them. He was already among friends at Buck's. He
had it all, or so it seemed.

"That's the tragedy of the whole thing," Collins said.

Law leaned on the counter.

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

Story originally ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com