Police hook suspects in charity ice-fishing fraud
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Two people have been charged after more than $13,000 in proceeds from a charity ice-fishing tournament weren’t donated to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba as promised, according to police.
The cash was collected from fishers who paid to enter the Full Tilt Winter Walleye Tournament in early 2021 and expected funds to go toward efforts to help sick and injured kids.
Winnipeg police allege the event organizer and a second person — charged with theft, fraud and money laundering after a complex and nearly year-long investigation — kept the money for themselves.
“This is particularly egregious considering the foundation, which is so near and dear to so many people’s families, is such a huge benefit in the city,” police spokeswoman Const. Dani McKinnon said Wednesday.
Investigators combed through financial records to determine the funds were used for personal gain, she said.
The financial crimes unit continues to investigate.
Police said the organizer approached CHFM in January 2021 with the idea of holding a virtual fishing tournament.
In-person derbies had been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health orders.
With a virtual event, fishers didn’t have to gather in large numbers, and they could submit evidence of their catches via a smartphone app.
Believing it would receive the proceeds, CHFM agreed and allowed the organizer to use its logo for advertising. The foundation had no involvement in the organizing or running of the event.
Several corporate sponsors agreed to donate cash or prizes, thinking they were supporting a good cause.
Entry fees for the tournament, held Feb. 20 to March 7, 2021, were $50 for adults and $25 for youth 16 and under.
Police said $22,147 was collected from 492 entrants, with $9,118 handed out as prize money to participants.
The remaining sum of $13,029 was to be donated to CHFM.
It was one of the biggest virtual ice fishing competitions in Canada, according to participants who spoke to the Free Press.
Fishers began asking questions and police launched an investigation into missing funds in December 2021, after the foundation didn’t receive a donation.
Questions were raised in a Free Press article published Jan. 8.
Days later, a CHFM spokeswoman confirmed the organizer had met with the foundation, but a donation still had not been received.
“We have forwarded details of the discussion with the organizer to the Winnipeg Police Service,” the spokesman wrote in an email at the time.
Members of Manitoba’s fishing community welcomed the charges.
“There was a lot of anger and a feeling of betrayal,” said Jerry Esau, who entered the Full Tilt tournament.
Some good came from the situation, with fishers making individual donations to CHFM and a handful of companies donating a portion of their sales to the charity.
“The fishing community is quite close,” said Esau.
Todd Brega, who manages the Fishin’ Hole’s Winnipeg store, said many fishers were disappointed when they learned the foundation didn’t receive any money from the Full Tilt event.
The store agreed to be a lead sponsor after being approached by the organizer, donating $1,000 as a grand prize and an ice auger for an early bird draw.
Other businesses donated items ranging from fishing gear to guided trips.
“I feel bad for everybody because there were a lot of companies and a lot of individuals who put into this,” said Brega. “It brings the community more together in times like this, because everyone wanted to do something about this.”
McKinnon said the alleged theft risks spoiling future fundraisers because sponsors or donors may think twice if they don’t know an event is legitimate when approached by an organizer.
Fishing companies and stores regularly receive requests to support charity events, including derbies.
“It really makes me check things out on their end a lot more,” said Brega.
CHFM declined to comment on the charges.
“The foundation has been aware of the Winnipeg Police Service’s investigation,” spokeswoman Kathryn McBurney wrote in an email. “As this is a matter now with the courts to resolve, we await the outcome from that. We have no further information to provide at this time.”
McKinnon said the Full Tilt event’s sponsors and the app company are victims as well.
The tournament used the FishDonkey app for its entrants. Organizers collect entry fees via the app, which takes a service fee.
The platform has been used by thousands of tournaments in Canada and the United States.
In January, FishDonkey co-founder Bonnie Amundson said the company, based in St. Paul, Minn., was “duped and misled,” if the allegations are proven.
The tournament organizer, Christian Thomas Gord Lillyman, 40, and Heather Neuert, 39, were charged between Oct. 20 and Nov. 20, according to police.
Lillyman and Neuert, who live in Ste. Anne, are or were in a relationship, according to fishers and a police source.
Lillyman runs or ran a home renovation company, according to online profiles and people who know him.
He and Neuert are charged with theft over $5,000, fraud over $5,000, laundering proceeds of crime and criminal breach of trust.
Both were released on undertakings.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.