By all accounts, Kevin Lee Hiersche had the abalone world by the adductor muscle.
The 51-year-old commercial diver from Gold Beach possessed the only permit on the West Coast to pluck and sell the Pacific's wild flat abalone, which sell in restaurants for $100 a plate.
Hiersche not only was asked by state biologists to monitor the population of flat abalone he mined, but also garnered enough trust from seafood processors to weigh his catch and write his own bills with virtually no checks and balances, authorities say.
"He had a tremendous privilege, no doubt about it," says Sgt. David Anderson of the Special Investigations Unit of the Oregon State Police's Fish and Wildlife Division.
But that privilege was not enough.
Hiersche paid the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission for their trust by over-fishing his flat abalone quota seven out of the eight years before his permit expired at the end of 2008, the OSP says.
He paid the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for their trust in helping manage flat abalone by illegally fishing for them without a permit five times in early 2009, the OSP says.
And Hiersche paid seafood processors back by fudging the weights of the abalone he sold them, adding a few pounds here or there and disguising it by chalking up the difference to water-weight loss, Anderson says.
"Trust was the issue here," Anderson says. "Not only did the commission trust him, the wholesalers trusted him.
"He wasn't being watched," Anderson says. "It opened the door to let him cheat."
The Curry County Jail cell door closed on Hiersche Jan. 13 when he was sentenced to 40 days in jail and ordered to pay nearly $41,000 in fines and restitution after pleading guilty to a cadre of felony and misdemeanor charges in the biggest abalone caper to hit Oregon.
His codefendant, Daniel William Wright, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and fined nearly $6,000 for assisting Hiersche in his illegal fishing, records show.
Hiersche dove for the abalone off his boat, the "Jerry Lee," and Wright acted as his on-board "tender," police said.
Abalone are rare, slow-growing, single-shelled marine mollusks whose adductor muscles are considered a delicacy, especially in China, Japan and Korea. Most are grown on sea farms, but the Southern Oregon coast is home to a population of flat subspecies of abalone.
A small group of recreational divers fish for the larger red abalone, but flat abalone don't grow large enough to meet the 8-inch minimum shell measurements to be part of that recreational fishery, says Scott Groth, the ODFW's shellfish biologist in Charleston.
After ODFW biologists discovered some suspicious sales activity by Hiersche, Anderson began an investigation that led him last March to visit Hiersche — with a search warrant in his pocket.
Anderson says he seized 30 pounds of frozen abalone that Hiersche and Wright poached early in 2009.
Also seized were log and invoice books, including a log book Hiersche kept with the intent that it never be seen by anyone, Anderson says. Hiersche helped decipher the entries for investigators, Anderson says.
"That's where all the true and accurate information was kept," Anderson says.
Hiersche admitted to reporting false harvest poundage and exceeding his quota every year but once before the commission pulled his permit in 2008, Anderson says.
Hiersche could not be reached for comment.
Anderson says Hiersche told him he did it because he had a medical condition that likely would end his diving career soon, that he had a kid in college and needed the money.
A Curry County grand jury in August indicted Hiersche on 44 felony and misdemeanor counts, while Wright was indicted on five felony counts.
In a plea agreement, Hiersche pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful taking of flat abalone, which is a Class C felony.
He also pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful taking of flat abalone and one count each of not having a wholesaler's license and falsifying business records. Those are all Class A misdemeanors.
Wright pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful taking of flat abalone in closed season.
And that closes the books on the West Coast's last fishery for wild flat abalone entrusted to the wrong man.
"The words I'd use in public about all this are 'very disappointed,' " says Steve Williams, the ODFW's deputy division administrator. "We try to work straight-up with everyone. Whether it's sport or commercial, it's very disappointing when someone does this to you."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.