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Four people charged in sturgeon caviar investigation, including DNR ‘sturgeon general’

Published: Feb. 12, 2021 at 12:20 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 12, 2021 at 3:03 PM CST
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FOND DU LAC COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Prosecutors in three counties have filed charges against four people in connection to a sturgeon caviar investigation.

As Action 2 News reported Thursday, DNR Fisheries Biologist Ryan Koenigs was charged in Calumet County for obstructing a DNR warden in the investigation. Friday, Winnebago County charged him with misdemeanor theft.

In addition, criminal complaints obtained by Action 2 News show charges of Unlawful Sale of Game Fish have been filed in Fond du Lac County against Shawn M. Wendt, 51, Oakfield, and Mary L. Schneider, 87, Fond du Lac and Victor R. Scheinder, 88.

The charges are misdemeanors, resulting from a years-long investigation into people processing sturgeon eggs into caviar in exchange for a share of the pricey delicacy. Eater.com states “entry-level” sturgeon caviar costs $65 to $85 per 30 grams. Higher quality will go for $150 per 30 grams.

According to the criminal complaint from Winnebago County: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were investigating reports of sturgeon eggs being illegally bought, sold or bartered around Lake Winnebago since at least 2017. They found a “concerted effort to funnel sturgeon roe to particular processors for caviar production,” including eggs, or “roe,” collected from the catch of sturgeon spearers. “This operation was overseen... by DNR fisheries biologist Ryan P. Koenigs.”

That roe given for research was the property of the State of Wisconsin, and DNR policy said it should be returned to the spearers who harvested the eggs or destroyed. But the complaint says Koenigs gave a caviar producer Arthur Techlow III, who was a former DNR fisheries biologist himself, access to the DNR service center in Oshkosh after hours to take the roe.

Techlow estimated he got nearly 65 pounds of roe in 2015 alone thanks to this access and produced $100,000 worth of caviar. “Techlow’s records showed that in 2017, he provided Koenigs six 8-ounce jars and thirty 4-ounce jars of finished caviar,” with an estimated market value around $20,000.

The complaint says this arrangement was in place before Koenigs was in a leadership role and before Techlow retired from the DNR, but the two men continued it.

Online court records don’t show any criminal charges against Techlow or Koenigs’ and Techlow’s predecessors identified in the complaint.

FOND DU LAC COUNTY CASES

A probable cause statement in case against Shawn Wendt case shows a conservation warden visited Wendt’s in Van Dyne on Jan. 31, 2020, to interview Shawn about the sturgeon caviar investigation.

According to the warden, Wendt said he gets sturgeon eggs through “word of mouth.” Wendt said he processes the eggs for customers for free and they give him leftover caviar to serve at his bar.

That’s against state law.

(1)(a) Except as otherwise expressly provided under this chapter, no person may sell, purchase, barter, or trade, or offer to sell, purchase, barter, or trade or have in possession or under control for the purpose of sale, barter, or trade any of the following:

29.539(1)(a)1.1. Any deer, elk, squirrel, game bird, game fish, or the carcass of any such wild animal at any time.

Wisconsin State Statute on Sale of wild animals

The warden informed Wendt that it is illegal to serve sturgeon caviar in a bar for customers and parties at the bar. State law prohibits the serving of most species of wild game to guests at any restaurant, club, hotel, boarding house and tavern without a Wild Game Serving Permit.

Wendt told the warden that he doesn’t barter with the customer for eggs but will sometimes have the person buy the jars for the caviar or buy him a beer for processing it. The warden said that was considered bartering and illegal.

Wendt has a court appearance scheduled for April.

In a separate case, Victor and Mary Schneider of Fond du Lac were visited by DNR wardens in January of 2020. The DNR had learned about the Schneiders from an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published in 2019. In the article Mary Schneider said she processed sturgeon roe for caviar and “keeps approximately half of the processed caviar in exchange.”

According to the complaint, Mary Schneider told the visiting wardens that the Schneiders do their processing on “halves.” That means a person brings in the roe and they process it in exchange for keeping half of the caviar.

The criminal complaint says Mary Schneider took a jar of black eggs out of her freezer and Victor asked the wardens if they wanted to taste it. They say Victor repeatedly asked them if they wanted to keep the jar. They declined, but seized it as evidence.

A warden asked the Schneiders how many eggs an average sturgeon brings in. Victor said about 30 pounds. One year, they processed about 170 pounds of roe, according to the complaint.

Victor Schneider said they do not sell caviar.

In 2012, a warden had spoken to the Scheiders about the legality of bartering for caviar. However, the Schneiders continued to do it, according to the complaint.

One of the wardens informed them that bartering is illegal. They could charge money for processing the roe, but exchanging it for a share of caviar is violation of the law. Victor told them he didn’t want to be in violation of the law.

In January of 2020, investigators spoke with a couple regarding a sturgeon speared in 2018 and registered at Indian Point. The investigator wanted to know what the couple did with the eggs. The woman explained that they arranged for the Schneiders to process 17 pounds of eggs into caviar. The woman believed the Schneiders give their share of caviar away to family and friends.

The Schneiders are scheduled to make a court appearance in April.

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KOENIGS CASE

DNR Fisheries Biologist and top sturgeon expert Ryan Koenigs has been placed on administrative leave by the DNR as result of the investigation.

A criminal complaint from Calumet County obtained by Action 2 News shows Koenigs has been charged with Obstruct Conservation Warden:

“Your complainant believes that on Jan. 27, 2020, Ryan Koenigs made several statements to wardens which were not truthful, during the investigation of the Sale of Wild Animals in violation of Wisconsin Stat., regarding his involvement in the collection and providing of eggs to processors for his personal benefit and consumption,” reads the criminal complaint.

A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Investigative Warden and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent had been investigating complaints that Lake Sturgeon roe, also known as caviar, were being “illegally purchased, sold, bartered and traded around the Lake Winnebago area,” according to a criminal complaint obtained by Action 2 News.

The investigation started in 2017 and “culminated with several search warrants and the interview of multiple DNR fisheries employees beginning in January 2020.”

The complaint states investigators uncovered “multiple people that were illegally selling, purchasing, bartering or trading sturgeon roe/caviar.”

Koenigs, hired as Winnebago System Lake Sturgeon Biologist in 2012, is in charge of registration stations, quotas and egg numbers. A conservation warden supervisor and a special agent interviewed Koenigs on January 27, 2020, regarding the registration process for sturgeon spearing. They presented their credentials and explained they were looking to the sale of sturgeon roe.

The warden supervisor asked Koenigs why fisheries staff from DNR were collecting sturgeon eggs for a known caviar processor at a registration station.

Koenigs responded that he did not know the processor, but investigators said phone records showed calls from May 10 and 11, 2018, between Koenigs and the processor. Koenigs said he didn’t call the processor about eggs but didn’t know what the call was about.

The warden supervisor asked Koenigs if DNR staff are collecting sturgeon eggs and giving them to members of the public outside of a DNR study.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Koenigs replied.

“Koenigs later added he has taken sturgeon eggs from people and taken them to a processor but not for financial gain,” reads the complaint. “He said as part of a fecundity study if the spearer says to take them to a processor then DNR workers do.”

Koenigs said that he had taken eggs to one processor and put her name on handout sheets at registration stations so DNR staff can refer spearers to her if they want eggs made into caviar. He said that it crossed his mind that processor might be selling sturgeon caviar.

The special agent pointed out that DNR staff had been holding sturgeon eggs for a processor at a registration station in Oshkosh. DNR documents had the processor’s name next to information about sturgeon eggs being held for her.

Koenigs told the investigators that some of the processors “thank” the DNR fisheries staff by giving them jars of caviar. Koenigs admitted that two processors give him 20-30 jars each year for “colleagues and personal consumption.”

One processor told investigators that he got most of his sturgeon eggs from Koenigs “from the lab.” The processor said he would arrive “after hours” and take the eggs out of the refrigerator. The processor said that Koenigs “would keep the ‘good eggs’ to make caviar.”

The processor said that he would give caviar to Koenigs to “travel around the Winnebago System and give the caviar to fisheries staff, friends, and other spearers.”

On Feb. 5, 2020, a DNR warden spoke with Koenigs on the phone. The warden said Koenigs admitted staff were bringing eggs to processors after research instead of throwing them away.

On June 17, a search warrant was issued at Koenigs’ home in Calumet County and his phone was seized. Investigators discovered a factory reset had been done on the phone after Koenigs and processors were interviewed about the alleged caviar scheme. The complaint states there was no DNR approval for the reset, which is required by state rules.

A notebook seized from Koenigs’ home included a handwritten note reading, “Radio etiquette be aware of what you are saying on radio Wardens can tune into this station on the radio.”

Koenigs is due in court for this initial appearance on March 29.

If convicted of the charge, he faces a fine up to $10,000 and up to 9 months behind bars.

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