By Gretchen Schuldt
The fraud conviction of a man who tried to win a fishing contest by entering a salmon with a one-pound weight hidden inside was upheld Tuesday by the State Court of Appeals.
"While (Michael A.) Cefalu initially suggested that the fish might have swallowed the weight from the bottom of Lake Michigan, multiple witnesses testified at trial that salmon are not bottom feeders," the three judge District III appeals court panel said in an unsigned opinion. "In addition, multiple witnesses – each of whom had cut open a significant number of fish—testified they had never encountered a fish with a similar weight inside."
It also was clear from the lack of a hole in the weight to accommodate fishing line that the weight never had been used for fishing.
The appeals panel's decision upheld rulings by Door County Circuit Judges Peter C. Diltz and David L. Weber, who presided over the trial and sentenced Cefalu, respectively.
The panel included Appeals Judges Lisa K. Stark, Thomas M. Hruz, and Mark A. Seidl.
Cefalu is a charter fishing boat captain in the Door County area and has more than 30 years experience, the panel said in its opinion. He tried to enter the weighted fish in the Kewaunee / Door Salmon Tournament, which awarded $10,000 in cash and $1,500 worth of other prizes to the first-place finisher.
It need not be proven that Cefalu actually weighted the fish himself – there were three others who had that opportunity – but the evidence supported Cefalu's conviction of party to the crime of attempted theft by fraud of property worth over $5,000 but not more than $10,000, the panel said.
Cefalu had argued that there was not enough evidence for conviction and that the determination that the property was worth more than $5,000 was improper.
"The evidence clearly shows that he undertook other conduct that aided another person in the commission of the attempted theft by fraud," the court said. "Namely, he helped to register the fish and present it for weighing, and he took the lead in interacting with tournament officials."
It was reasonable for the circuit court judges to infer that Cefalu knew about the weight, the panel said.
The fisherman was reluctant, once a metal detector indicated something was inside the fish, to cut the salmon open. Cefalu initially said he wanted to preserve the fish for mounting, but the circuit court found that was merely an 'excuse,' because the fish easily could be cut on the back side.
"The court also observed that fish 'aren’t mounted without being gutted first,' which a 'seasoned Captain' would know," the appeals panel said.
Cefalu also promptly filleted the fish after it was disqualified from the tournament, raising questions about just how badly Cefalu really wanted it mounted. And, the panel said, Cefalu had particular expertise in catching Chinook salmon, and the lower court reasonably inferred that Cefalu would have known that salmon are not bottom feeders and would not have gobbled up the weight from the bottom of the lake.
The appeals panel also rejected Cefalu's argument that the value of the fish was only $1,000 because the fish would have placed third in the tournament had it not been disqualified. The prize for that was just $1,000.
The appeals panel, though, said the attempted theft occurred earlier, when Cefalu and another man presented the fish to tournament officials.
"At that point in time—i.e., the time the attempted theft was committed—the fish was the largest entry into the tournament," the panel said. "It is undisputed that the market value of the Tournament’s first-place prizes was $11,500. The defense did not introduce any evidence at trial indicating that, for whatever reason, Cefalu’s intent in committing the attempted theft was to win something less than first place.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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