Judge rules against would-be White Marlin winner

Court holds fishing began before start time, $2.8M cash prize going elsewhere

Date Published: 
June 23, 2017

In an opinion released Wednesday, June 14, Federal District Court Judge Richard Bennett declared that White Marlin Open Inc. was correct in denying last year’s presumed tournament winner of more than $2.8 million in prize money.

Bennett, who sits on the federal bench for the Maryland District, found that the tournament complied with its obligations and that angler Philip Heasley had begun to fish before the tournament’s prescribed 8:30 a.m. starting time.

Heasley is the owner of the vessel Kallianassa and was the sole registered fisherman aboard. He caught the only qualifying white marlin in last August’s tournament, which weighed in at 76.5 pounds.

According to tournament rules, all anglers winning more than $50,000 in prize money must submit to a polygraph test. Crew members may also be required to take a polygraph, under certain circumstances. The polygraph provision of the rules has been in place since at least 2004 and is not unusual for large tournaments, according to the court order.

Last year, four people were required to take the test, including Heasley. Three passed, but Heasley did not, according to court documents.

The tournament provided a second round of testing for Healey and also called in his crew, whose answers to the polygraph reportedly displayed signs of deception.

Heasley was allowed another round of testing, under certain conditions and at his own expense. The fact that the testing had been performed without the results being submitted into evidence was noticed by the court.

“Ultimately, this Court concludes that Mr. Heasley’s arguments are without merit,” the judge’s opinion reads.

“We are obviously disappointed by today’s ruling,” Chris Sullivan, Heasley’s attorney, said in a statement. “We maintain that Mr. Heasley and his crew all abided by all of the tournament rules and regulations.”

Sullivan said he is reviewing the decision and is considering options. Heasley has 30 days to appeal.

The court found the Kallianassa violated tournament rules by setting its fishing lines prior to the official 8:30 a.m. start on Aug. 9, 2016, which is enough to disqualify boat and crew from the tournament entirely.

“I’m glad the judge ruled the way he did and held the White Marlin Open did the right thing. The judge ruled in favor of the integrity of the tournament and said we did everything we needed to do,” Jim Motsko, tournament founder, said.

Key to the case was the Kallianassa’s Leviathan computer system logs, and GP Link satellite system.

According to the logs and the court’s findings of fact, the boat slowed to a trolling speed at 8:04 a.m. on Aug. 9 and remained at that speed until about 11 a.m. The GP Link corroborated the Leviathan records on speed and timing.

The boat captain, David Morris, had begun trailing a school of skipjack tuna — a food source of white marlin. Morris was at the helm of the Kallianassa and was told to give the order to put the lines in the water, according to the court’s opinion.

Neither side of the case disputed that the fish Heasley landed, which was subsequently named the winning fish of the tournament, was on board the vessel before 8:58:47 a.m.

That time was established by Morris, who clocked in the catch and reported he had done so well after everything had settled down on deck.

Bennett’s decision was bolstered by significant differences in the testimonies of each crewmember in four areas: how long it took to deploy all of the ship’s fishing lines, how long it took to hook the white marlin, how long Heasley fought the fish, and how long it took to gaff and boat the fish.

According to the court’s opinion, virtually none of the accounts given by captain, crew or angler matched, and most of them made it impossible for the fish to be boated by the agreed-upon time of 8:58 a.m.

Working backwards from that time, the court found that between 15 and 20 minutes passed between the time the 10 lines were dropped and the fish was hooked. It also found it took Heasley between 10 and 15 minutes to bring the fish to the side of the boat, and two attempts to gaff it and bring it onboard.

Bennett found it impossible for angler, captain and crew to have performed all of those tasks by 8:58 a.m. if the lines were only down at the official 8:30 a.m. start time. More likely, Bennett opined, the lines were in the water closer to when the Kallianassa reached trolling speed, between 8:08 and 8:23 a.m. on Aug. 9.

The order made no determination on what would happen to the prize money, which, per tournament rules, is to be divided by the next tier of winning anglers.