The story behind the caviar con job

David Gauvey Herbert 27 July 2021

When Russian caviar prices soared in the mid-2000s, a tiny town in the US Midwest experienced a clash of cultures, and laws

Mike Reynolds was working at Cody’s Bait and Tackle in rural Warsaw, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains, when two Russian men entered the shop and began rifling through fishing poles that didn’t yet have price tags. Reynolds asked them to stop, but they ignored him.

Reynolds, then 57, had seen plenty of Russians come through the shop. He was tired of them poaching the town’s beloved paddlefish.

He removed a .40-caliber pistol from under the counter, chambered a round, and placed it on the counter. The two men looked up, backed out of the store, and never returned.

It was just another dustup in the long-running war between caviar-mad Eastern Europeans, local fishermen, and state and federal agents that centers on this unlikely town and a very curious fish.

The American paddlefish can weigh more than 160 pounds and measure seven feet long including its needle-nose snout. Paddlefish have another quality—their eggs taste quite a bit like Russian sevruga caviar. This curious fact explains why, in the mid-2000s, Russian immigrants began descending on tiny Warsaw (population 2,127), paddlefish capital of the world.

"Paddlefish have another quality—their eggs taste quite a bit like Russian sevruga caviar"

For most of the 20th century, connoisseurs considered only the roe of beluga, Russian sturgeon, Persian sturgeon, and stellate sturgeon fit for making caviar. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, several factors, including poachers, decimated the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon population. Russia restricted commercial harvesting. Prices soared.

Illustration of caviar jars, and vodka behind an 'evidence' tag

Illustration by John Ritter

The American paddlefish, a distant cousin of the Caspian sturgeon, is a mediocre substitute. The best Russian caviar has a clean pop and tastes of the sea. Paddlefish roe typically has an earthier flavor with an inconsistent texture.

Yet it’s a sign of the desperate times that a four-ounce jar of paddlefish caviar—a byproduct that for years local fishermen tossed back with fish guts—now sells for $60. A pregnant female paddlefish can contain up to 20 pounds of roe worth nearly $2,100 on the retail market. If a poacher sells the eggs as high-grade sevruga caviar, it’s worth $40,000.

Every spring, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of roe sit at the base of Truman Dam, near Warsaw, when paddlefish stack up there like cordwood.

Eastern European fishermen are a more familiar sight here than one might imagine. Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who live in nearby Sedalia have fished in Warsaw for years. But by the mid-2000s, a different breed of Russian was arriving in town every spring, driving flashy imported cars with out-of-state plates.

Most of the men didn’t have fishing experience, but they’d drop hundreds of dollars on bait and tackle, hire guides, and drink vodka shots with breakfast. And they developed a reputation for overfishing.

“The phone was ringing off the wall,” Rob Farr, the local agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation, told me.

State law allows fishermen to keep just two paddlefish a day. So locals were angry. “They just ripped open the fish to remove the eggs, and let the carcass sink,” a commenter wrote on OzarkAnglers.com. “A similar punishment should be administered to the poachers.”

"Every spring, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of roe sit at the base of Truman Dam, near Warsaw, when paddlefish stack up there like cordwood"

Around 2009, Gregg Hitchings, an investigator with the Missouri Department of Conservation, got a call from Farr. Would he make the trip down to the Ozarks?

Handing out tickets for overfishing is tough. Perps are often drunk, armed, and furious. Over the years, Hitchings found more covert ways to enforce wildlife law.

The two men drove around Warsaw, checking out popular fishing spots, including the Roadhouse, a shuttered restaurant and dock. Hitchings peered into the ruined property. Operation Roadhouse began to take shape. He wouldn’t catch poachers by casting out a line and reeling in one at a time. He’d throw chum in the water. He wanted a feeding frenzy.

When Felix Baravik pulled into Warsaw in the spring of 2012 after an 11-hour drive, the madness had already begun. The chance at landing a paddlefish had drawn anglers from all over the Midwest and beyond, practically doubling Warsaw’s population. Baravik and his buddies wanted to snag monsters too. Females. Lots of them. 

Baravik, who managed a large home care agency in Denver, had grown up in Belarus in the Soviet Union. His friends—Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Artour Magdessian, and Dmitri Elitchev—were immigrants from former Soviet bloc states too.

Black sturgeon caviar

Black sturgeon caviar 

Most of the Eastern European fishermen would have heard stories from their grandfathers about the 1930s, when a tin of caviar only cost twice as much as butter. When stocks dried up, caviar lovers turned to the black market. By the 1990s, overfishing and illegal exports had sent prices skyrocketing. Only oligarchs and gangsters could afford to eat it.

Baravik and his friends rented a cabin, bought fishing licenses and hit the Roadhouse, which was brimming with snaggers who paid $8 a day for a position on the small dock.

None of the fishermen on the Roadhouse dock knew about the investigation that the Department of Conservation was running with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gary Hamilton, the friendly middle-aged man running the dock, was in fact Hitchings. The Roadhouse dockworker who sold day passes had a hidden camera over his shoulder and was keeping records of their personal information.

Money was changing hands all over Warsaw. Petr Babenko drove around town buying up pregnant female paddlefish. Another man, Fedor Pakhnyuk, openly bragged that he had sold $15,000 worth of caviar in 2011. Now he was en route to buying 36 quarts of paddlefish eggs.

The Eastern Europeans wanted so many eggs, it was hard to believe they weren’t selling them. Hitchens’s idea was that the federal agents would follow the roe to a black market. Who knew what they would find? Russian mafia. An international caviar cartel.

Baravik and Magdessian went snagging with two local guides—actually undercover agents—and landed seven paddlefish, well over the legal limit. Elitchev and Lvovskiy skipped the hassle and bought three females from another agent for $375.

The Russians drank. A lot. And with so much alcohol and competition over fish, it was only a matter of time until something popped. Late one night, Hitchings, who slept in a camper near the Roadhouse dock, was startled awake by shouting. Rival groups of fishermen prepared for violence, more than a dozen on each side. Weapons were everywhere. Beer bottles. Fishing gaffs. Handguns. Fists began to connect with dull thuds.

Undercover agents stopped the fight, but the brawl laid bare the stakes. The men who traveled from all over the country for a shot at knockoff caviar would not be denied.

"The Russians drank. A lot. And with so much alcohol and competition over fish, it was only a matter of time until something popped."

A few days later, the four Colorado friends returned home. The undercover agents would have been justified in feeling confident. They had helped Baravik and his accomplices illegally buy and catch female paddlefish. The eggs were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if mislabeled as Russian caviar.

But there was a problem. Most of the men were buying female paddlefish, processing knockoff caviar and … eating it. Illegal, yes. But the plot of a Russian mafia thriller? Hardly.

Some officers must have realised the miscalculation on March 13, 2013, when 125 state and federal agents descended on poachers across four time zones to make arrests.

During an interview, one poacher said the caviar was for his family to give guests when they came over.

“Why would I want to sell it?” he asked.

“To make money,” an agent replied.

“Heck, no!”

Of the 112 defendants tagged with state or federal violations, four pled guilty to felony trafficking charges and another eight, including Baravik, pled guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges. Only one case went to trial, that of Petr Babenko, the owner of a gourmet store in New Jersey. He was convicted of felony trafficking of paddlefish and given probation.

Fedor Pakhnyuk, who had openly bragged about his dream of an ersatz caviar empire, was released and ordered to refrain from drinking. Agents returned his personal effects: a leather jacket, $36 in cash, a lighter, two sticks of chewing gum and some papers. The head of a caviar cartel he was not.

A 2012 conversation during the second and final season of Operation Roadhouse, between an undercover agent and a poacher, was representative. The agent wanted to know how many more female paddlefish his client needed.

“Fifty, twenty, one hundred, honestly,” the suspect replied. “We’ll take them all. We have a big family. We’ll suck up on them. Eat it all year.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation considers Operation Roadhouse a success. Paddlefish poaching is way down.

But Hitchings acknowledged that even the men selling were not tributaries to a river of black-market caviar. The state and federal government had spent millions of dollars to protect a fish stocking operation that costs Missouri $100,000 a year.

A few of their collars were small-time caviar hustlers. But most really, really liked caviar. “Caviar is good,” Felix Baravik told me.

He knows he messed up. “I was in not right time with not right people,” he said. He copped to one count of paddlefish trafficking, did three years’ probation, and paid a $5,000 fine, plus legal fees.

Recently, Baravik was traveling back from Cancun, Mexico, with his family. At immigration, the customs agent studied his computer screen. The conviction had triggered a “lookout” note in his file. The agent pored over his criminal record. Baravik’s family watched with mounting anxiety.

The agent finally looked up. His eyebrows were incredulous.

“Fish?” he asked. “Really?”

Yes, really.

From Longreads.com (February 2019), Copyright © 2019 by
David Gauvey Herbert

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