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About three years ago, Hall was out fishing when the Rosts delivered a bundle of eggs. The couple stood in the fish house, watching Hall's daughter cure caviar and quizzing her on the method. All the while, they were taking notes, Hall recalls. At the time, he considered the couple's behavior harmless. Later, he'd change his mind.
Ron Hall had one of his most bullish years in 2001, but his luck began to unravel when, a year later, Panchernikov, Hall's primary buyer, was convicted for mislabeling lower-grade caviar as higher-grade product. Hall was convinced Panchernikov intended no wrongdoing and was equally certain that none of his hackleback or spoonbill was passed off as higher-grade caviar. (There's no way to know if it was, and Hall never questioned Panchernikov on the matter.) Still, a federal court in Brooklyn sentenced Panchernikov to nineteen months in prison and fined him $400,000. His demise left Hall on the hook for some $90,000.
Hall says Panchernikov wires payments of varying amounts to pay off the debt and makes occasional calls to assure Hall he won't be cheated. (Panchernikov did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
Embattled and weary from the financial setback, Hall took a break from sturgeon.
In the meantime, Cliff and Kathy Rost decided to jump into the caviar business, filling the void left by Hall's unhappy sabbatical. The couple took a seafood-safety class from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in St. Louis and became certified to process caviar. It's Kathy who cures the caviar. "I won't let Cliff near it," she says, citing his penchant for ruinous shortcuts.
The Rosts decided on Show-Me-Caviar as their business name, opened a fish house in Morrison and invited the FDA to come inspect it. Rost likes to boast that "everything inside is snow-white." Next, Rost started buying eggs from Hall's former anglers.
Hall hadn't an inkling of the Show-Me-Caviar operation. Upon returning to the caviar business last year, Hall began calling up his fishermen, only to discover that Rost was curing caviar now, too. Rost -- his one-time crony -- turned competitor?
Hall was livid. "All Cliff knows about this he learned from me!
"One day I went down there [to Morrison] and saw the whole operation," he fumes. "I saw he went and bought the same stuff we had. Cliff's the only one in the whole caviar business that processes eggs like I do."
Hall reflects on his experiences with the Rosts over the last few years and is convinced they stole his curing method -- the river-man's most prized secret -- the day they took notes at his fish house.
Kathy, a quiet, methodical woman, is outraged to hear Hall's accusations. "That is false information!"
"I would not eat anything that Ron Hall had ever touched in the first place," she adds. "I have been pushing FDA to get up there and inspect him."
Her husband merely laughs. "I rained on Ron's parade big time," Cliff Rost concedes. "Business is business."
The two families have not spoken since.
Dave Owens, a scruffy divorcé, rented a trailer in Warsaw, Missouri -- a threadbare hamlet hailed as "Spoonbill Capital of the World" -- and quickly endeared himself to Gene Murphy, the owner of a seedy bar favored by fishermen. Within a month's time, Owens gained access to Bob Defriese, an outlaw caviar maker, according to federal authorities.
It was the late 1980s, trade relations between the United States and Iran had stalled, and a caviar shortage had arisen. Wildlife officials started finding bundles of dead paddlefish, their stomachs slit open, on the riverbanks. They suspected river-men like Tennessee fisherman Bob Defriese were filling a niche in the caviar market with illegal fishing. Their fears turned out to be justified.
Gene Murphy introduced Defriese to Owens on a February evening in 1988, saying Owens could be trusted to fish illegally for caviar and would not report Defriese to state game wardens. Authorities say Defriese was desperate for egg suppliers to aid his paddlefish poaching ring.
That night, Defriese told Owens that paddlefish roe was all the rage, there was good money to be made, and the nearby Harry S. Truman Reservoir was teeming with the trophies. But it was illegal to fish the lake, according to Missouri Department of Conservation regulations. To snag the fish, one had to drop nets at night to avoid detection, Defriese explained. Owens said he didn't know how to fish with nets but agreed to participate in the scheme. He told Defriese that his roommate, Bob Lewis, would also be fishing. A few hours before dawn, Defriese, Owens and Lewis descended on the lake.
Federal agents say Defriese instructed Owens and Lewis how to float a net, and within minutes, several female paddlefish flopped around the boat's bottom. Their total haul: about 30 pounds of eggs. Fine enough for the dilettante bandits.
Authorities say Defriese, pleased with Owens' and Lewis' success, encouraged the pair to start fishing every night. Owens and Lewis slashed open each paddlefish belly and pulled out any egg sacks. Then they tied all the carcasses to a rock and heaved the bundles overboard in order not to alarm game wardens. Back on land, the trio processed caviar in scum-coated bathtubs at fleabag motels.