ELLSWORTH — A saga involving allegations of skullduggery by a Mount Desert Island lobster dealer on the waters of Blue Hill Bay reached its final chapter last week in Ellsworth.
A Superior Court judge dismissed a single charge against Donald Crabtree of failing to keep required records or not reporting all of his lobster purchases.
The story began in the summer of 2015 with an investigation by officers of the Maine Marine Patrol who heard complaints that Crabtree was buying lobsters on a barge moored outside Seal Cove in Blue Hill Bay but wasn’t filing required landings reports with the Department of Marine Resources.
The investigation continued through much of the summer of 2016 and, in September of that year, Crabtree received a notice from DMR that his license to buy seafood had been suspended.
In October, according to Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster, Crabtree was also charged with “a single count civil violation of a rule” based on the same allegations that he was not keeping records or reporting all of his purchases of lobsters.
Crabtree’s license suspension expired at the end of last year, but he missed the 2017 season. According to Crabtree, a half-dozen or more of his employees who worked either on the barge where he bought lobsters and sold bait to fishermen or ashore at the Seal Cove Wharf where he landed his lobsters lost their jobs.
While his suspension had ended, Crabtree was still waiting for the jury trial he demanded on the civil charge. Last Wednesday, the case appeared on the trial list at Hancock Superior Court. Crabtree and his Bangor attorney, Charles Gilbert, were told that a jury would be chosen and that the case would be heard the next day. Not long afterward, Gilbert said, the case was dismissed.
“I had left the court and headed for my office to prepare for trial,” Gilbert said. “By the time I got back I learned the case had been dismissed.”
Though Crabtree avoided the statutory penalty of a fine of “not less than $100,” he did not avoid several court dates. Crabtree listed the number at 15, and thousands of dollars in attorney fees. He also never got the chance to tell his side of the story to “a jury of his peers,” Gilbert said, an opportunity Crabtree paid $300 for when charges were filed.
Gilbert said the case against his client was a weak one. The state “never produced direct evidence” by testimony from fishermen or others that Crabtree bought lobsters and didn’t properly record and report the purchases. The only testimony against Crabtree was “hearsay from a warden” at the administrative hearing.
“They listed 12 witnesses, but none ever testified,” Gilbert said.
Another flaw in the case against Crabtree, Gilbert said, is that as well as buying lobsters his client acknowledged he also sold bait to fishermen in transactions that require no DMR record keeping or filing.
According to Foster, concern for witnesses was one factor that led to dismissal of the civil case last week.
“Since Mr. Crabtree had already lost a considerable amount of income during his administrative suspension, and since a trial would have required that a number of local lobstermen would have to take time off from work to attend a trial as witnesses at the beginning of their season, the DMR, in consultation with my office, determined that the previously imposed administrative sanction served as a sufficient punishment,” Foster said in an email on Monday, and would serve as “sufficient notice and deterrent to other seafood dealers who might consider engaging in similar conduct.”
The minimal potential for further punishment also factored into the decision.
“My office takes all of the cases we handle very seriously and Marine Resources cases are no exception,” Foster said. There are, though, “times when the process we must go through to get a conviction is not justified when all of the collateral issues are considered.”
With Crabtree already having lost a season of business and paid $300 for a jury trial, triple the amount of the mandatory minimum fine, Foster said, “it did not seem like a good use of taxpayer money, taxpayer time or judicial resources” to take the case to trial.
Crabtree has a different take.
“I don’t think it’s fair I’ve never been able to present my story,” he said last week.
“It’s a hard racket,” he said. “I think my business could be washed up. I’ve lost my boats,” the ones he used to buy lobsters from. “Once you disappear, it’s hard to get anybody back. It takes a while to build up that trust.”