Various headlines from the George Oates, Bernie Keene American Bass Fisherman fraud case. Circa 1976.

A couple days ago I went through the history of American Bass Fisherman and its fall from the competitive bass fishing industry.  In that series I’d done a lot of research through old newspaper archives and court reports.  At the end, I had to leave you all on a cliff hanger because I couldn’t find anything after April 1976 that stated the findings of the new court case.  Today in Oates and Keene Final Words, we give you the final answer.

As stated above, I hit a wall researching George Oates and American Bass Fisherman.  I found pre-trial writeups of the events from 1974 and ‘75 as well as a new finding from 1976 when the Florida Appeals Court recommended the case be tried.  For the life of me I was unable to find anything regarding the accusations after that.  I hate publishing a story without the final answers but after weeks of research and no answers in sight, I felt it was time to post.  I figured someone with the knowledge might contact us and we’d finally have the answer.

Well, the answer came that night when BFA editor Brian Waldman sent me some clips he’d found.  Seven clips in total, six from the 1976 trial and one from the selling of American Bass Fisherman after the case ended.  Finally, closure.

News Clipping from the August 24, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.

The findings start out on August 24, 1976, in Florida Today with a column by Mike Lewis.  Lewis states that defending attorney, Ed Hanlon, had asked the court to investigate allegations the prosecuting attorney, Greg Stewart, had told former defendant Logan “Skip” Fischer that he would be prosecuted if he testified on behalf of the two defendants, Oates and Keene.

Hanlon also stated that the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission had placed another witness on leave of absence in order to keep him from being called to the bench.

Both parties, Stewart and Florida State Game and Fresh Water Fish Commissioner Dr. O. E. Frye Jr. said Hanlon’s accusations were false and alluded that Hanlon’s tactics were typical of his practice.  In fact, Dr. Frye told the court that his warden, Steve Smith could be called to witness even if on leave if he was subpoenaed.

News Clipping from the August 25, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.

In the next day’s Florida Today, Lewis continued his coverage of the case.  This time Phil Jay, the co-conspirator and whistleblower, testified that he, Oates, and Keene had collaborated to rig the tournament in Clermont, FL in May 1974.

Jay, under questioning by the state attorney, stated that the three men had caught about 36 bass and transported them to Oates’ house until the night before the event.  Keene then transported the fish to the tournament site.  During the event, Jay took the fish out to the boat of Robert Varnadore and Skip Fischer.

At this point, Jay told the court that, “the plan called for Vernadore and Fischer to win the tournament and return some of the prize money to the magazine but that another man actually won the tournament.”

Jay then said that Oates told him, “We didn’t make as much money as we were supposed to,” because some of the fish from the holding pool died during transit to Clermont.”

Therein lies Oates’ claim from the Sarasota Herald Tribune December 4, 1974, that, “It’s almost impossible to keep bass alive for a week like they claim.”  Oates was speaking from experience it seems.

News Clipping from the August 27, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.
News Clipping from the August 28, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.

On August 27, 1976, Lewis then reported that the defense had taken the stand.  Defense lawyer Hanlon brought witness to the bench that claimed Keene was at a party the night he was alleged to have transported the fish.

The next day, Oates took the stand to defend himself.  Oates denied he rigged the event, and then said that Jay at one point had told him, “I’m going to get you.”  Oates said he had fired Jay in 1974 for stealing a $3,500 boat and motor and $10,000 worth of fishing equipment.

Keene’s wife also took the stand and corroborated he husband’s story that he couldn’t have been transferring fish because she was with him on the drive from Fort Lauderdale when the actions were to have taken place.

This column really goes in depth as to the court proceedings and the tactics made by both the defending and prosecuting teams.

The report in the September 2, 1976, The Tampa Times, gives the outcome of the case with Oates and Keene being charged with grand larceny.  It was a landmark case where cheating in a bass tournament was found to be a crime with a maximum sentence of five years.  I believe this to be the first case ever in the history of fishing to make it a crime to defraud a fishing tournament and the case that is cited in nearly every case of cheating since that time.

News Clipping from the September 2, 1976 The Tampa Times newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.

This report does a deeper dive into the entire case as it went through the court system.  There is more information in this one column than in all the previous columns written.

Florida Today then reported on October 5, 1976 that Oates and Keene had been sentenced to pay fines for their participation in rigging the 1974 event held on Chain O’Lakes near Clermont, Florida.  The court sentenced Oates to pay a fine of $3,500 and for Keene to pay $500 – a small fine compared to the crime committed in my opinion.  No jail time was given for either individual as far as I can tell.

Oates and Keene continued to claim their innocence with Oates also stating that he was broke from having to defend his partner Keene and himself at trial.  Keene’s rebuttal was that he was convicted of participating in a scheme for which he received nothing in return.  “I’m accused of being just like…….a dummy, quite frankly.”

News Clipping from the October 5, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the American Bass Fisherman trial.

At this point, American Bass Fisherman was having a hard time filling tournaments due to the bad publicity and with Oates being broke, he had no choice but sell the company.  This is where things get a little strange.

On November 23, 1976, the Florida Today reports the sale of American Bass Fisherman for the sum of $1,000,000.  The sale of the company isn’t what’s strange, but the sum of money it was sold for is insane, in my eyes.

Oates claimed that the business had grown into one of the largest tournament organizations in addition to its magazine sales.  He also claimed more than 140 ABF-affiliated tackle stores throughout the nation.  At this time, Johnny Morris’ Bass Pro Shops had started a franchise system of tackle stores where they would supply tackle shop owners with Bass Pro Shops labeled gear and also give them the ability to buy other name brand tackle at their cost plus a markup.  It appears that ABF had started the same type of program and this is verifiable in their magazine.

But the thing that struck me as most insane was the team of people who bought the company from Oates.  On this list of four, two names were big shots in the industry at the time.  The first two being Lew Childre of Speed Stick and Speed Spool fame and the second being Jim Epps, of ProCraft boats.  You can understand why both Childre and Epps would want to venture out into the competitive bass market but why would they want to buy into a company that was failing on all accounts?

The other two names involved in the sale were two men that had been involved with Oates and ABF from a peripheral standpoint, Don Williams and Wayne Dyer.  As mentioned in a previous article on American Bass Fisherman, Dyer had been listed as president as late as March/April 1977 issue of American Bass Fisherman, but was off the masthead by November/December of the same year.

Also mentioned in that article was that Dewey Yopp had purchased ABF in August 1978 for the sum of three rigged boats and motors.  To go from a $1,000,000 dollar investment to maybe a $10,000 selling price in the matter of two years is unconscionable.  It makes you scratch your head and think that Childre, Epps, and the others were bad businessmen or George Oates was that good of a crook.  It was probably a mix of both.

Newspaper clipping from the November 23, 1976 Florida Today newspaper on the sale of American Bass Fisherman.

So, there you have it, the rise and fall of American Bass Fisherman, from soup to nuts.  The surprising thing is this isn’t the only story about a failed organization that tried to steal from its constituents.  Bass Fishing Archives supporters, Rich Zaleski and Andy Williamson both alluded to another organization a few days ago.  That organization, the World Bass Association, owned by J. R. Donovan, took the cheating and fraud scandal of Oates and Keene to an unprecedented level.

We’re still doing the research on that and as soon as we get more information on it, we’ll be publishing a series of pieces on that piece of bass fishing history.  In the meantime we hope you enjoyed this look back on our sport’s history.