Prosecutors called Michael Hayden “the most culpable member of the conspiracy” in which four Eastern Shore fishermen netted more than 185,000 pounds of striped bass worth nearly half a million dollars over four years.
Hayden pleaded guilty last summer to violating the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits the sale of illegally caught fish across state lines. He and William Lednum, who in January was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, illegally anchored gill nets in the water when the season was closed and left them to net huge quantities of illegal fish. They then falsified their daily allocation and permit paperwork that the Department of Natural Resources requires. To further conceal their crimes, they sold the fish directly to wholesalers in other states, circumventing fish-checking stations and mandatory harvest reports.
“It was massive. It went on for years. It coincided with a decline in striped bass. It covered numerous violations of natural resources laws,” said federal prosecutor Todd Gleason. “The government needs to address the defendant’s culpability, because this is a defendant that, to this day, doesn’t get the message. He just doesn’t get it.”
Gleason was referring to comments Hayden made in a recent Baltimore Sun article in which he contended that the nets he used were legal in other states, and that the DNR has been asked to consider making them legal in Maryland. But DNR fisheries manager Mike Luisi said they are not close to being legalized in the state. Regardless, Gleason pointed out, it will never be legal to set nets before the season begins, and such an action steals from both honest, law-abiding watermen as well as the public trust.
Hayden’s sentence was six months longer than the one give to Lednum because the federal government also accused him of obstruction of justice.
Both Hayden and Lednum will need to pay $498,242 in restitution and a $40,000 fine.
Four witnesses testified about Hayden’s behavior regarding the obstruction crime.
Roy Rafter Jr., a natural resources police officer, testified that he and his partner discovered illegal nets at Bloody Point and went back to conduct surveillance. When Hayden spotted them, he attempted to block the police from picking up the net by laying down some obstructing equipment, Rafter said. He also made an obscene gesture, according to Rafter.
Kent Sadler, a co-defendant in the case who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for his role, testified that Hayden repeatedly told him not to talk to the government. Hayden also told him that another person in the community had talked to police, and that he would “take care” of that individual.
Another officer testified that he caught Hayden with striped bass that Hayden claimed to catch with hook and line, but he had no fishing rod on board and a test later confirmed they were not caught with hook and line.
A fourth, former seafood dealer Jeffrey Morris, testified that Hayden called him after Morris received a grand jury subpoena. Morris said Hayden told him that he knew Morris had “rolled.”
“He said that he knew something or other, and that he would get me,” Morris said. “I told my wife and daughter not to stay in the house that night.”
The judge dismissed the two officers and Sadler’s claims, saying that a defendant encouraging others not to talk or generally being belligerent in the arrest process did not meet the definition of obstruction. But he said he found Morris’ complaints credible. For that reason, the judge tacked six months onto Hayden’s sentence, while giving him the same time for the poaching crime as he gave Lednum.
Gleason attempted to draw a distinction between Lednum, the Tilghman Island fire chief who expressed great remorse for his crimes, and Hayden, who was accused of intimidating witnesses. But the judge didn’t see a difference, especially after Hayden’s family and friends testified that he was a great father, husband, neighbor and friend.
Hayden, for his part, expressed remorse for the toll his crimes took on his family and community.
“I was greedy when I was fishing. I got greedy, and it did go on for years,” Hayden told the judge. “It didn’t ruin me. I ruined me. I did this to myself. I’m deeply sorry about it.”
Hayden asked for house arrest and community service, but the judge made it clear in both this sentencing and in Lednum’s that he would impose a prison sentence to “send a message to the two men and to the dozens of watermen who support them, that taking fish from the public resource won’t be tolerated.
The range of sentencing for Hayden’s poaching and obstruction charges would have been 37 to 46 months. But as they did in Lednum’s case, the government agreed to a “downward departure,” which means a lesser sentence. Gleason’s team would only say the prosecutors made that call because of elements in the men’s records that were sealed.
Hayden will also have home detention for six months and three years’ probation after he serves his prison time.
Bennett said it caused him “great pain” to levy a prison sentence, but that he had to do it.
“This is a very serious crime, and the message has to go out,” he said. “I know this is a tough day, but you’re young, and you can put this behind you.”
In addition to Hayden, Lednum and Sadler, a St. Michaels waterman named Lawrence Daniel Murphy also pleaded guilty in the scheme. He was sentenced to probation and a $40,000 fine.