The Caviar Con

When caviar-crazed Eastern Europeans flocked to Warsaw, Missouri to poach eggs from a vulnerable species of fish, federal agents went undercover and spent two years to build case against them.

David Gauvey Herbert | Longreads | February 2019 | 15 minutes (3,739 words)

Not long ago, Mike Reynolds was working at Cody’s Bait and Tackle when two men entered the shop with a jingle. He identified them right away by their accents as Russians. The two men began rifling through fishing poles that didn’t yet have price tags. Reynolds asked them to stop. They ignored him and continued to lay rods on the floor.

Reynolds, then 57, had seen plenty of Russians come through the shop, which sits on a quiet dam access road in Warsaw, Missouri, deep in the Ozarks. He was tired of them poaching the town’s beloved paddlefish. Sick of their entitled attitude, too.

So when he asked them to leave and they did not comply, there seemed only one option left. He removed a .40-caliber pistol from under the counter, chambered a round, and placed it on the counter.

“I fear for my life,” he said in a slow, deliberate drawl. He wanted to cover his bases, legally, for whatever came next.

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 Russians, local fishermen, and the feds that centers on this unlikely town in the Ozarks and a very curious fish.

***

The American paddlefish is a beast. It weighs up to 160 pounds and can run seven feet long including its needle-nose snout. String one up and it looks like the Chrysler Building. The Roomba of the Ozarks, they patrol the waters with mouths open, filtering plankton through their gill rakers.

But paddlefish have another quality — their eggs happen to taste quite a bit like Russian sevruga caviar. And that curious evolutionary fact explains why, in the mid-2000s, Russian émigrés began descending on tiny Warsaw, Missouri (pop. 2,177).

The town is unremarkable. It has a Sonic Drive-In and a local family-owned newspaper, went for Trump by 53 points, and has a median household income of $29,538. But it has paddlefish. Lots of them. So many that it’s known as the Paddlefish capital of the world. This little town absorbs the aftershocks of seismic global events. When the global caviar market spasms, Warsaw feels a rumble.


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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.

Entrepreneurs went looking for alternatives among Caspian sturgeon’s distant North American cousins: white sturgeon, the shovelnose sturgeon of the Mississippi River, the American paddlefish. It’s 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.

And 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 on Amazon. 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 to undiscerning consumers, it’s worth $40,000. Every spring, tens of millions of dollars worth of roe sit at the base of Truman Dam when paddlefish stack up there like cordwood.

Caviar sends men on strange errands, so powerful is the stuff’s mythology.

Gregg Hitchings learned the dangers of the job early in his career. He once approached a group of men littering beer cans on a riverbank in Crawford County. He woke up lying in the mud.

“Everyman and everywoman,” wrote the French author Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, “reverently eating modern ambrosia in the form of caviar, can identify as they indulge in the mad extravagance of swallowing it — even if they do not happen to like it — with what they see as the last incarnation of the immortals.”

An obsession like that doesn’t follow the rules. It can’t.

***

Around 2009, Gregg Hitchings got a call from Warsaw. Fish guts were turning up on banks and streambeds. Would Hitchings, an investigator with the Missouri Department of Conservation, make the trip down to the Ozarks?

The men who patrol Missouri’s woods and rivers are a hard-nosed bunch. Handing out tickets for overfishing is tough. Perps are often drunk, armed, and furious that a fellow hunter has dimed them out. Hitchings carried a .40-caliber Glock 27 pistol on the job for that reason.

Hitchings learned the dangers of the job early in his career. In the 1970s, as a 22-year-old rookie, Hitchings once approached a group of men littering beer cans on a riverbank in Crawford County. He woke up lying in the mud.

In the years that followed, Hitchings found more covert ways to enforce wildlife law, and he developed a reputation as an undercover genius. He once set up a taxidermy shop in southern Missouri, put an agent behind the counter, and had hidden cameras rolling as hunters bragged about their illegal kills. His quarry literally handed over the evidence.

Down in Warsaw, Rob Farr, the local agent who invited Hitchings to visit, had seen caviar poachers before. In the 1980s, he began finding pregnant females split open, emptied and left to rot on back roads. That poaching operation shuttled the eggs back to Tennessee, where they were mixed in with legal paddlefish caviar and sent to the East Coast.

But from the 1980s to mid-2000s, Farr saw little sign of poaching. If they were out there, they were being very careful. And then Farr started getting tips. Carcasses dumped on dirt roads, eggs looted from bellies. Strange Eastern European accents pattered at boat launches and through motel room walls.

“The phone was ringing off the wall,” Farr told me over breakfast one morning in Warsaw. The global caviar market was heating up, and fanatics were finding their way back to Farr’s sleepy Ozark town. Farr needed Hitchings and his undercover magic.

The two men drove around Warsaw, checking out popular fishing spots. Snagging in the paddlefish-packed shadow of Truman Dam is prohibited; fishermen must back up to the Highway 65 bridge. Just past the bridge sat the Roadhouse, a shuttered restaurant and dock. Hitchings cupped his hands and peered into the ruined property. A vision 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, the madness had already begun. The chance at landing a paddlefish had drawn anglers from all over the Midwest and beyond. Baravik and his carload of buddies wanted to snag monsters too. Females. Lot of them.

Baravik didn’t need to go fishing for roe. Back in Denver, he managed a large home care agency. His office park was near a Russian specialty foods market, where he could have a tin of perfectly edible bowfin caviar for $30, which didn’t require driving 11 hours to Warsaw. But there was something about the chase that excited him.

During paddlefish snagging season, Warsaw’s population practically doubles. Motels increase nightly rates. Walmart checkout belts swell with plastic coolers, bagged ice, and beer. Guides charge hundreds of dollars for day excursions. At the Parkfield Inn, a makeshift sign warns that you are not allowed, under any circumstances, to clean fish in your room. If sport fishing is the town’s economic engine, paddlefish season is the ignition.

“It’s a long winter and people get out of the house with cabin fever,” said Bernie Archambault, the former owner of the Old Oar House, a dock and bar popular with snaggers. Paddlefish is the giant Rastafarian banana of fishing season: a flashy, fun prize to kick off the carnival.

Baravik had grown up in Belarus in the Soviet Union before emigrating to Israel in 1990 with his wife and young daughter. He moved the family to Colorado in 2004. The three men with whom he traveled to Warsaw in 2012 — Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Artour Magdessian, and Dmitri Elitchev — were middle-aged immigrants from former Soviet bloc states too.

Most of the Eastern European fishermen in Warsaw would have heard stories from their grandfathers about the 1930s, when Soviet apparatchiks ensured that a tin of caviar only cost twice as much as butter. A Leningrad nurse could eat government-subsidized caviar sandwiches for lunch. Their fathers would have talked about how stocks dried up amid damming and caviar lovers turned to the black market. And those who stayed in Russia and its former republics into the 1990s would certainly remember how overfishing and illegal exports sent prices skyrocketing. By then, only oligarchs who made fortunes stripping the Soviet empire for parts and gangsters in armor-plated Mercedes could afford to eat it.

“If you were anybody, you had to eat caviar to show that you were somebody,” said Nichola Fletcher, the author of Caviar: A Global History. It’s about conspicuous consumption, sure. “But along the way,” she told me, “once you start to have it, it’s incredibly delicious.”

We’ll take them all. We have a big family. We’ll suck up on them. Eat it all year.

Back in Belarus, Baravik’s father, a sewing machine mechanic, hadn’t been able to procure caviar for the family. It wasn’t just a delicacy. It was practically a myth.

Eastern European fishermen like Baravik were a more familiar sight in the Ozarks than one might imagine. Thousands of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, members of the same Pentecostal church, live in nearby Sedalia, likely making it the most Slavic town in America.

Those Missouri-based émigrés fished in Warsaw for years. But in the mid-2000s, around the time Farr began getting complaints about gutted fish on back roads, a different breed of Russian was arriving in town. At the Old Oar House, flashy imported cars with out-of-state plates arrived every spring. 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.

City slickers cling to a cartoonish conception of wildlife conservation as a war between eco-warriors and gun-happy rednecks. But in fact, hunters and fishermen in Missouri are among the most ardent proponents of the state’s tightly regulated system. After the damming of the Osage River disrupted paddlefish spawning grounds, the Missouri Department of Conservation began breeding and stocking paddlefish. State law allows fishermen to keep just two paddlefish a day.

And so when outsiders — Eastern European outsiders — began arriving in droves, locals were pissed. “They just ripped open the fish to remove the eggs, and let the carcass sink,” a commenter with the username laker67 wrote on OzarkAnglers.com. “A similar punishment should be administered to the poachers.”

In Warsaw, Baravik and his three friends rented a cabin, bought fishing licenses at Walmart, and hit the Roadhouse, which by now was brimming with snaggers who paid $8 a day for the privilege of jostling with one another for position on the small dock.

Money was changing hands all over Warsaw. Petr Babenko drove his white Mercedes van around town buying up pregnant females. 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 — with a retail value in the thousands of dollars. He also ran a ramshackle processing station behind his motel room. Caviar madness had taken hold.

None of these men knew that the Roadhouse dockworker that sold day passes had a hidden camera over his shoulder. Or that he was keeping meticulous records of their personal information for future arrest warrants. Or that Gary Hamilton, the friendly middle-aged man running the dock who slept in the camper 15 yards up the hill was in fact Gregg Hitchings, the undercover wizard of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Hitchings’s men had plenty of evidence against Baravik’s Colorado friends from the season before, the first year of the undercover operation. To save a few bucks in gas money, Baravik had joined their group — and walked right into their sights.

Baravik and Magdessian, a Colorado friend, went snagging with local guides Chris and Earl — actually two undercover agents — and had great luck, landing seven paddlefish, well over the legal limit.

Elitchev and Lvovskiy, the Coloradans, skipped the hassle and bought three females from another agent for $375. The sale went down in a parking lot near Truman Dam; committing a crime on land operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agents knew, would add further heft to the federal charges.

***

Over at the Roadhouse dock, Hitchings’s undercover operation was catching scores of offenders. People were regularly snagging over the two-fish limit. Men jostled to get on the tote board, a list of the heaviest fish caught. A hidden camera recorded their boasts. Hitchings had created yet another sportsman’s confessional booth.

The Russians drank. A lot. And with so much alcohol and competition over fish, stuffed as they were with thousands of dollars of caviar, it was only a matter of time until something popped.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had lent Hitchings a camper to use at the dock, and he bedded down there most nights to stay close to the action. It was late one night, and Hitchings had just drifted off to sleep when he was startled awake by shouting down by the water. He opened the camper door and saw bedlam.

In the light of a roaring campfire, rival camps of fishermen prepared for violence, more than a dozen men shouting on each side. His undercover officers spoke no Russian, but even they understood that escalating Slavic oaths were flying back and forth. Weapons were everywhere. Beer bottles. Fishing gaffs that resembled an oversize dentist’s sickle probe. Concealed handguns. A fisherman waved a paddle in self-defense.

“Knife!” another shouted. “He’s got a knife!”

Fists began to connect with dull thuds. A man went down. Blood poured from his face.

Agents eventually stopped the fight without breaking their cover. But the brawl laid bare the stakes of Operation Roadhouse. The case codename itself implied a bubbling gumbo of violence and rough justice worthy of Quentin Tarantino. The men who fished around the clock had traveled from all over the country for a shot at knockoff caviar. They would not be denied.

Hitchings didn’t just want to break up fistfights and pass out some tickets. He wanted to figure out how the market worked once eggs left the Roadhouse dock. Transporting processed paddlefish out of state violated the Lacey Act, a charge that carried up to five years in prison. The poachers they arrested would have a strong motivation to flip on their bosses.

A few days later, the four Colorado friends loaded into their car and returned home. 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.

The idea, Hitchings told me, was to follow the roe to a black market. Who knew what they would find? Russian mafia. An international caviar cartel. A gushing stream of paddlefish eggs headed abroad.

“I was kind of thinking we would find roe going back to Russia,” Hitchings said.

It was not an unreasonable hunch. In recent years, rising prices have driven caviar fanatics to desperate gambits. In October 2015, police stopped a hearse outside Khabarovsk, in Russia’s far east. The driver said he had been paid to transport a body, but inside the casket they found 1,100 pounds of smuggled caviar in plastic tubs.

Great things can have small beginnings. But when you start with a great, big beginning, the pressure is on. The sheer amount of bait thrown into the water — undercover agents recruited from all over the state of Missouri, hidden cameras, dozens of female paddlefish for controlled sales — required that they hook a monster.

“It became a creature that was out of control,” said Jeff Weeden, a defense lawyer for Artour Magdessian, the Colorado man who illegally bought females and overfished with Baravik and friends. “You can’t have” — and here he pitched his voice into italics — “Operation Roadhouse and not have convictions.”

There was a problem. The Russians were fighting, overfishing, and buying pregnant females. But there was one thing they weren’t doing, the most important thing of all for federal prosecutors: Most of them weren’t selling it.

After the first wave of convictions in the case, Vice shouted “Caviar Trafficking Has Landed in Missouri” and the Toronto Star blared “How the Russian mob got into Missouri fish eggs.” Operation Roadhouse generated lots of paperwork, of course, and nine months after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, I finally got back 625 pages of notes and photographs. The more I read, the more I came to see a problem with those headlines.

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 new 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.”

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

If the government did not realize its miscalculation, at least some officers must have on March 13, 2013, at 7 a.m. Central time, when 125 state and federal agents descended on poachers across four time zones to make arrests.

During an interrogation, one poacher was confused. 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 suggested.

“Heck, no!”

Among the poachers, Fedor Pakhnyuk seemed a strong bet to lead the government to an international smuggling ring. In Warsaw, Pakhnyuk had openly bragged about his dream of an ersatz caviar empire. When they arrived at home in Illinois, Pakhnyuk immediately recognized the agents as workers from the Roadhouse dock. They were his pals.

“Hi, guys,” he said.

Could they talk, an agent asked.

“Sure, anything you need.”

As they drove to a Fish and Wildlife office near O’Hare International Airport, Pakhnyuk suggested they get beers after everything was over. An agent said he was in serious trouble. Pakhnyuk replied that he had no money. There wasn’t much they could do to him.

At the office, agents put Pakhnyuk in handcuffs and belly chains then continued on to the U.S. Marshals office in Chicago. Shackled in the car, he again asked if they wanted to have a beer “after this was over, later that day.” He then offered to work for them if they really wanted to catch “high-level Russians.” He could sell caviar to deckhands on Russian-flagged ships in Minnesota and gain their trust. An agent wrote in his notes that the suspect was rambling.

A few hours later, a magistrate judge released Pakhnyuk and ordered him to refrain from drinking. By 1:10 p.m., he was free. Agents returned his personal effects: $36 in cash and two sticks of chewing gum.

The report ends with a note: “Pakhnyuk stated the officers should call him if they still wanted to get some beer later that day.”

The don of a Chicago caviar cartel, he was not.

Of the 112 defendants tagged with state or federal violations, investigators observed only Petr Babenko, the owner of a gourmet store in Vineland, New Jersey, intending to sell the stuff. He was prosecuted, convicted, and given probation. The government seized his Mercedes van.

To Hitchings, it doesn’t matter. Other men were undoubtedly selling, he said, likely through informal channels, or perhaps to friends and family back home who financed fishing trips to Warsaw.

“They wanted so many eggs, and they were so expensive, it’s pretty hard to believe they weren’t selling them,” he told me.

The Missouri Department of Conservation considers Operation Roadhouse a smashing success. Paddlefish poaching is way down. In September 2017, Larry Yamnitz, the chief of the department’s protection division, won the National Geographic Wildlife Trafficking Investigation Award for his agents’ work in Operation Roadhouse.

But Hitchings acknowledged that even the men selling were not what he’d hoped: 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, and then chuckled at the taste of it in his mouth. “It’s good stuff.”

Baravik knows he fucked up. “I was in not right time with not right people,” he said. He copped to a single count of wildlife trafficking, did three years probation, and paid a $5,000 fine, plus thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Even if he wanted to forget his crime, Warsaw’s game wardens won’t let him. The conservation department’s arm is long. They can tap his shoulder anywhere and remind him to stay the hell away from their paddlefish.

Recently, Baravik was traveling back from Cancun with his wife and in-laws. His family sailed through immigration, and he was the last person at the desk. The customs agent studied his computer screen. The conviction had triggered a “lookout” note in his file. The agent pored over his criminal record. He leaned forward to study the screen. Tapped away. Eyed the screen some more. Baravik’s family watched with mounting anxiety.

The agent finally looked up. His eyebrows were incredulous.

“Fish?” he asked. “Really?”

To be hunted by the federal government for a fish? The agent had never lugged a hundred-pounder from the water or seen his small town’s treasure under threat.

To risk so much for a fish? He had never longed for a lost way life on another continent, or been transported home as beads of caviar burst on his tongue.

Fish? Really?

Yes, really.

For an audio companion piece to this story and to hear more from David about how he reported this story, download this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast here.

***

David Gauvey Herbert has written for New York Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atavist and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has filed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Ukraine, and a Costco outside Paris. Herbert is also a two-time grant winner from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

***

Editor: Mike Dang
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy-editor: Jacob Z. Gross