An article titled “Fishy Business” from the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine reported on an unusual criminal investigation in the Lake Winnebago region. There, a loose network of spearfishers, former and current Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees, and caviar processors were swept up in a case being examined by the DNR over several years. They were looking for evidence of illegal sale or barter of sturgeon roe to be processed as caviar.
During reporting, a Freedom of Information Act request was placed with the DNR seeking records about the case. FOIA requests typically can take months (or sometimes even years) to process, and we just received the results – a 156-page redacted document – a couple of weeks ago. Although there are no huge new revelations about the case, it gives a better sense of just how wide the investigation was. In the end, four people were initially charged in early 2021, though almost all the counts were dropped.
Case title: “Lake Winnebago Sturgeon Roe” also highlights the distinctive Wisconsin nature of the case – photo evidence includes jars of caviar in an employee fridge at a DNR station nestled between hamburger buns and half empty ketchup and mustard bottles, and a photo of caviar processor’s phone numbers jotted down on a promotional notepad from O’Reilly Auto Parts.
Here’s five interesting takeaways from reading through the document, which should be interpreted as only the investigators’ side of the story.
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The key figure caught up in this dragnet was Ryan Koenigs, who as the DNR’s lead sturgeon biologist was referred to in local media as the “Sturgeon General.” According to the report, he was part of a culture where the “DNR Boys,” as one fisherman called them, would collect unwanted sturgeon roe to process into caviar. The salty treat was then brought to employee meetings and local bars to snack on, with entire jars being gifted out.
Another DNR employee explains it like this: “If the spearer didn’t want it back, ‘basically we distributed among ourselves and had a good old time with it.’” That, according to the report, includes sometimes putting “them on pizzas, etc.” as well as on Ritz crackers, washed down with beer.
As we reported, they seemed to be aware what they were doing wasn’t quite legit. One DNR employee, when asked what happens to the eggs if spearers don’t want them: “Aaahhh…ha ha…yeah I don’t…I don’t want to get anybody in trouble, I mean I think they’re free to give them to whoever they want.”
Another retired DNR employee who worked with Koenigs to acquire sturgeon eggs described a regional DNR warden as “a straight-laced fussy person” for warning them to destroy the leftover eggs. In 2020, a search warrant was executed on Koenigs’ electronic devices, which showed he had been in contact with local caviar processors.
We reported a restaurant, Wendt’s on the Lake, was investigated because they served free caviar at their bar and during parties. Charges against one of the Wendt family members were later dropped. Rumors of caviar being sold out of bars near sturgeon registration stations led the DNR to do undercover surveillance on and in Jerry’s Bar (in Oshkosh), Boom Bay Bar and Grill (in Larsen), Paynes Point Bar and Grill (in Neenah), and Critter’s Wolf River Sports Shop (in Winneconne) during spearfishing season in 2018.
At Jorgie’s Bar in Berlin, undercover wardens saw that “the establishment was crowded with standing room only and very loud. We observed approximately four sturgeon on the pool table all of which were tagged…I spent $7 of covert cash money on covert enhancement while [Redacted] and I were there. We left the area a short time after.”
The reports build a narrative that caviar barter is quite common with processors. Although some processors charged $25-30 per hour for the service, which would be legal, most processors provide the service because they like caviar and want their own supply. The report reveals that the DNR’s top go-to was Elizabeth “Betsy” Krizenesky, who worked as a massage therapist and teaches Russian language at Lawrence University in Appleton. One DNR employee described her as a “Russia-phile” whose secret touch as a processor was a method “Russians call ‘malossol’ (little salt or lightly salted).”
Here’s another dish that sure doesn’t sound pretty: In a message, Krizenesky tells Koenigs they “should talk to her Russian friend Boris about his recipe for sturgeon head soup.”
DNR wardens investigated Krizenesky hard, paying an undercover visit, interviewing her, then seizing her electronic devices in a search warrant. Although two octogenarian caviar processors, Mary Lou and Victor Schneider, did get slapped on the wrist in this investigation, Krizenesky was not charged or ticketed, even though the report alleges that she lied and likely destroyed evidence.
Interestingly, there is a report from the search warrant evidence review, that wardens found “a thank you note from a sitting judge in Winnebago County” for caviar that was likely “obtained by Krizenesky by her illegal barter processing activities.” The note from then-Winnebago Circuit Judge Karen Seifert read, “Thank you so much for the gift of caviar – my savage palate has never experienced caviar. We are looking forward to the treat. … Thank you for your kindness.”
Most spearfishers around Lake Winnebago are hush-hush about caviar, a touchy subject they’d rather avoid than risk saying the wrong thing. In the report, wardens interviewed a longtime DNR volunteer, who admitted “in the past he would purchase beers when he was given eggs, but not as an exchange for the eggs but as a thank you.” This volunteer also says he heard there was a spearer running his mouth around that he was selling the eggs and that when he saw this spearer, he told him that if “he heard from anyone else that the guy was spreading a rumor like that, he would be in ‘big fricking trouble.’”
One of things we wanted to find out with the Fishy Business story is if there is an actual black market for Lake Winnebago caviar. (Our reporting didn’t really find that.) The report only has the slightest hint that there might be suspicious characters lurking in the area hoping to get their hands on some illegal caviar. The report says:
“Koenigs said in the last two years they had people with Eastern European accents asking how they could get a sturgeon or buy one at the Boom Bay registration,” and another DNR worker reported something similar. But the majority of this investigation outlines Wisconsinites who weren’t selling eggs but bartering so they could have a delicious, locally made snack.