×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The untold truth of Deadliest Catch

Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch depicts the real-life risks of Alaskan crab fishing, including the financial and physical perils of the gig, as well as the stark reality that death is not an uncommon occurrence on the job site. However, the popular reality TV show doesn't quite catch everything. 

For example, did you know that some show staffers got caught up in a drug smuggling scandal? Or how about the fact that so many of the captains and crew members have committed felonies, their rap sheets include everything from drug possession to assault and bank robbery? And none of that even mentions the biggest scandal of all: these guys don't even eat a lot of crab! 

Let's dock the Sea Star, Time Bandit, and all the other boats to take a deep dive into one of the most controversial reality shows of all time. This is the untold truth of Deadliest Catch.

Elliott Neese has a drug problem

During season 11 of Deadliest Catch, then-Captain Elliott Neese abruptly handed over the helm of the Saga to first mate Jeff Folk and left his ship — leaving viewers wondering why he went AWOL. After rumors swirled in tabloids about his addiction problems, Neese himself tweeted in May 2015 that he'd entered a 60-day program at Passages Malibu for an undisclosed problem. He wrote that he'd "had issues," but after his stay at Passages, had "a new outlook on things now."

Unfortunately, the road to recovery was bumpy for Captain Elliott. In 2017, he revealed on Instagram that he'd apparently suffered a relapse, as he was celebrating "90 days clean." Neese keeps a low profile on social media, posting sporadically to share pictures of his pet rabbits and sporting goods purchases, which he probably doesn't buy from Sportsmans Warehouse. In 2019, he posted to Facebook a long rant against the retail chain for refusing to sell him an AR-10 firearm he claims to have placed on layaway. It's possible that Neese may even return to the show that made him famous. In 2017, Deadliest Catch executive producer Decker Watson tweeted that he "tried like hell" to get the fisherman onto the 13th season of the show, but to no avail.

It seems Neese is a magnet for trouble. According to TMZ, he was served with a restraining order in 2012 for allegedly harassing Valerie Gunderson, the mother of his children. In her petition, Gunderson said she feared for her personal safety "in the event that Elliott 'snaps' so to speak." She also claimed that during one incident in 2010, Neese got so angry that he destroyed her television — then burned her clothes in the fireplace.

Feleti "Freddy" Maugatai is a closet cage fighter, in a sense

Apparently, Feleti "Freddy" Maugatai has some mixed-martial arts ambitions. According to a criminal complaint obtained by TMZ, Maugatai got involved in a fight against a husband and wife team in the bathroom of the Grand Aleutian Hotel back in December 2011. Maugatai claims he was defending himself when he put the husband in a headlock and shoved the guy's wife. Police arrested him, despite his story. He was later fired from his ship for an unrelated incident, but maybe he should look into bringing his untapped fighting prowess to the octagon. Each of his fights could be called "Deadliest Match!" Don't deny it: you'd watch.

Jake Harris and his other deadliest pursuits

Jake Harris, son of the late Captain Phil Harris, has struggled mightily away from the Deadliest Catch cameras. According to People, Harris crashed his BMW in Seattle in February 2010 and fled the scene. Police later arrested Harris and charged him with hit and run, driving under the influence, and driving with a suspended license. Several months later, TMZ reported that Captain Derek Ray of Deadliest Catch ship Cornelia Marie summoned police because he suspected Harris was abusing drugs at sea. Authorities discovered "paraphernalia," but no charges were filed.

In November 2016, Harris suffered a cracked skull and brain injuries in a robbery, per KIRO 7. A few months later, TMZ reported that Harris stole a car from a friend in Phoenix and was subsequently busted for possession of crystal meth and unauthorized Xanax pills. Harris then failed to show up in court in 2017 to face those charges, leading to a bench warrant for his arrest.

Flash forward to 2019, when Harris had a showdown with park rangers in Skagit County, Washington. According to TMZ, those authorities tried to pull over Harris in his RV, but instead he bolted, leading to a chase with state troopers. When they finally forced Harris to stop the vehicle, they noted signs of intoxication. A search uncovered a half ounce of heroin, drug paraphernalia, and a stolen shotgun. For charges related to that incident, Harris was sentenced to an 18-month prison term.

Joshua Tel Warner was a stick-up artist

Despite the variety and volume of crimes committed by Deadliest Catch cast members over the years, Joshua Tel Warner, who first appeared on the show in 2009, may be the biggest criminal of all. In 2010, police in Eugene, Oregon, arrested Warner for his alleged involved in a string of bank robberies. Law enforcement suspected him in a 2007 Washington Mutual heist, another at a Pacific Continental Bank in in April 2009... and then a second robbery at the same bank later that month. 

Robbing banks and getting away with it necessarily involves laying low and keeping mum, but Warner didn't do either of those things. In 2010, Oregon law enforcement officials noticed that this guy on Deadliest Catch was a dead ringer for the guy suspected in those bank jobs, and issued a warrant for his arrest. And according to Deadliest Catch cast members that spoke to TV station KVAL (via CBS News), Warner mentioned to them that being on a hit reality show was probably not the best way to keep his criminal past a secret. Just hours after the warrant was issued and shared with law enforcement agencies, police in East Peoria, Illinois, arrested Warner on December 31, 2009. A few months later, Warner stood trial and earned a sentence of nine-and-a-half years behind bars.

Drug trafficking producers

Even people behind the scenes on Deadliest Catch are magnets for trouble. Production manager Matthew Schneider was charged in April 2010 for selling and using cocaine, according to Alaska Dispatch News. Schneider's illicit activities were discovered after he allegedly sold about $300 worth of the stuff to an undercover officer — and used some of it in front of the officer as well. Oops! He also revealed that some other show employees were involved in a drug-trafficking affair, which resulted in the arrests of 18 people.

The Hillstrands ran for the hills

The best thing to happen to a breakout character on a hit show is scoring a spinoff — unless they're the Hillstrand brothers. In 2010, Discovery offered Jonathan and Andy their own show, to be called Hillstranded. Discovery even started filming footage for it. However, when time came to record voiceovers and polish everything up, the brothers were nowhere to be found, according to E! Online. This didn't sit well with Discovery, who slapped them with a $3 million lawsuit. The Hillstrands retaliated by leaving Deadliest Catch altogether, taking fan favorite Captain Sig Hansen with them. Network and talent all eventually made up, but the Hillstrands' trouble didn't end there.

The brothers may have trouble keeping their heads above water following a hefty settlement awarded to former crew member David "Beaver" Zielinski. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Zielinski won the judgment after injuries he incurred during the Hillstrands' celebration of a 2013 Seattle Seahawks victory. And just how did they celebrate? By shooting off some fireworks, of course, because doing that on a boat is always a great idea. Anyway, under captain's orders, Zielinski lit off a mortar. The firework, which was made by the Hillstrands, exploded while Zielinski held it, shattering the bones in his hand and forearm. The injured fisherman filed his suit in 2015, and was awarded $1.35 million by a King County jury in 2017. Ouch.

Sig Hansen's daughter accused him of molesting her

Sig Hansen's estranged daughter from his first marriage, Melissa Eckstrom, brought a civil suit seeking undisclosed damages over allegations that he sexually abused her when she was two years old.

The case was complicated when prosecutors declined to file criminal charges in 1990, yet stated in a letter to Eckstrom they believed "the information at hand suggests Mr. Hansen has acted in a sexually inappropriate manner." Hansen faced the charges during a divorce and custody case in which the judge "ruled that the abuse did not occur."

The ongoing turmoil between the Hansen and Eckstrom families stems from Hansen's brief and tumultuous marriage to Eckstrom's mother, Lisa, whom Hansen claims "poisoned my relationship with our daughter through years of vile lies," according to The Seattle Times.

Hansen also claims Lisa Eckstrom has continually attempted to extort him. He even set up his own website in an attempt to clarify and document the controversy. This latest civil suit, filed in November of 2016, is awaiting review by the Washington State Court of Appeals as of this writing. Hansen told The Seattle Times, "This is nothing more than an old-fashioned shakedown. ... It's blackmail."

Alaska has a problem with the show

While viewers still love Deadliest Catch, Alaska has had its fill of the show, according to Alaska Dispatch News. To summarize the complex issue, the boats featured on the show are making it difficult for the rest of the northern crabbing fleet to earn a living. It seems that the Discovery Channel's funding of fishing expeditions, in whole or part, has affected the crews not participating in the show. That's made it difficult for them to keep up. In some cases, those crews end up earning minimum wage, and crabbing "is far too dangerous" for such minuscule pay. On the other hand, it does afford Discovery Channel the opportunity to create a show about former fishermen now living on skid row.

Sig Hansen spit on an Uber driver and kicked his car

On a much lighter, albeit still troubling note, Sig Hansen was also in the news around the time the abuse allegations resurfaced for allegedly flipping out on an Uber driver. According to The Seattle Times, the Uber ride went wrong when Hansen, his wife, stepdaughter, and son-in-law ordered a ride home from their booze-soaked celebration of Norwegian Independence Day. After some confusion over a cancelled ride order within the Uber app, and Hansen's frustration with not being able to just pay cash for the ride, Hansen and his son-in-law allegedly "spat on the driver's head and the back of the driver's seat." Hansen also allegedly "kicked the outside of the rear of the passenger side of the vehicle, causing a dent."

Hansen was arrested at his home after a drunken confrontation with Seattle PD, but later — presumably less inebriated — apologized in multiple tweets for his actions, according to Seattle PI. "I am terribly sorry for my behavior and am very embarrassed by it," Hansen tweeted. "I owe a bunch of people apologies, first and foremost to our Uber driver, who was just trying to get us home safely. I hope I can make that apology in person. I have no excuse, and accept responsibility for my actions."

A show producer was murdered

Deadliest Catch actually lives up to its ominous title. Not only did the show chronicle the death of fan favorite and Cornelia Marie captain Phil Harris, but it has also featured the deaths of many other crew members who died working in violent storm conditions, and on the several other boats that unexpectedly sank. But tragedy has also touched Deadliest Catch far from the docks of Dutch Harbor.

In a seemingly random incident, associate producer Joseph McMahon was gunned down outside his Pasadena, California home after he went outside to investigate a noise, according to CBS LA. And if that wasn't bizarre enough, the suspect in the shooting was found dead in his car that same day from "what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound," according to The Wrap. As of this writing, the relationship (if there was one) between McMahon and his alleged murderer has never been revealed to the public.

The crew doesn't eat much crab

This one kind of seems like a no-brainer, but there's actually a good reason you never see the Deadliest Catch fishermen sitting around a table sucking down crab meat dunked in melted butter. The obvious reason, of course, is that crabs are the product they're out there risking their lives for, so it would be pretty counterproductive to continually put a dent in their profits by eating the catch.

On top of that, Sig Hansen has claimed that crab is "too messy" to eat on a boat, not to mention eating anything at all isn't necessarily a priority. In an interview with the Miami New Times, Hansen described the crews' diets while fishing as "horrifying," adding, "Fishing is what dictates your meals and what you can eat," and "You're not eating at regular times, it's hell." So again, it should come as no surprise that it's not exactly Red Lobster Crabfest on the decks out there.

The camera crew works almost as hard as the fishermen

On a lot of reality shows that feature tough characters in grueling environments, there is generally an opportunity for the production team to leave those elements behind at the end of their shift. On Deadliest Catch, this is not the case.

According to How Stuff Works, which got the inside dirt on show production via Associate Producer Ryan McNeil, the two-man video crews aboard the crab boats don't have it easy. Not only do they endure the same weather conditions and rough seas as the fishermen, they do it all without ever leaving the boat, which means they're stuck on deck with the crew for "the entire crab run," which generally lasts "three to five weeks."

This leads to an inevitable camaraderie between the fishing and film crews, according to Captain "Wild" Bill Wichrowski, who told The A.V. Club, "I'd say 85 percent of the guys I had ended up being buddies," adding, "We actually spend more time with the cameramen on the boat than we do with our own families, if you think about it. You're with them 24/7 essentially for five or five and a half months and you don't see your own family that much. So you either grow to really like these guys or not; it's one way or the other."

Climate change is affecting the show

Environmental factors obviously play a huge part on Deadliest Catch. Raging storms, colossal waves, and frigid water are all hazards the crab boat crews face on a daily basis. But the show's most recent season, as of this writing, also documents how the crews have been forced to change tactics due to climate change. Speaking with The Daily Mail, executive producer R. Decker Watson, Jr. said that the resulting four degree rise in water temperature has driven crabs from "traditional fishing areas," which in turn has caused some of the boats to "strike out for new territory that is more dangerous because of fiercer storms and is further from rescue workers if something goes wrong."

Though Watson admits the show is careful to avoid the political controversy surrounding climate change, he does admit that both the production staff and the crabbing crews have a personal stake in how the changing environment affects the fishing industry as a whole. "When something like this comes up, it's felt by all of us," Watson said, adding, "I love making this show, and so does the rest of my team."

Sometimes the tragedy continues off the screen

Over a decade after his last appearance on Deadliest Catch, former F/V Maverick captain Blake Painter died in his Astoria, Oregon home on May 25, 2018. According to the Associated Press, he was found by a friend who became concerned after "being unable to reach him."

TMZ additionally reported that prescription pills were found at the scene, although authorities ruled out any foul play, and, at the time of this writing, are still awaiting autopsy and toxicology reports to determine Painter's cause of death. Just a few months prior to Painter's death, he was arrested in Astoria for DUI, and charged with "unlawful possession of heroin, tampering with physical evidence and reckless driving" after a police officer allegedly observed him smoking heroin while driving.  

The second generation fisherman starred on seasons 2 and 3 before quitting when he became disenchanted with his portrayal on the show. Blake Painter was 38 years old at the time of his death.

The show doesn't actually cover the deadliest kind of crab fishing

With all the carnage left in the wake of the Deadliest Catch crab boats, it may be surprising to find out that the crab seasons followed by the show — the red king crab and opilio crab, according to FV Northwestern.com — don't traditionally have the highest body counts for fishermen.

According to The Oregonian (via How Stuff Works), "since 2000, the death rate in the Dungeness industry has been twice that of the Bering Sea." This is apparently due to two factors: One, Dungeness boats don't need a Coast Guard safety inspection to get permitted, and two, the Dungeness industry still operates on the "derby" system, which allows for "inexperienced captains and small boats" to incur high risks trying to catch as much crab as they possibly can.

But don't worry, because the Discovery Channel apparently realized the superlative flaw in the show's title, which they've since corrected by launching their spinoff series, Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove, which documents — you guessed it — the Dungeness crab industry.

There may be some fakery behind the scenes

Like most reality shows, Deadliest Catch is guilty of dressing up the events that happen in real life. In their case, producers made it appear as though one of the ships was in danger of being sunk by huge waves during a storm, which is an honest hazard of crab fishing. However, the episode in which this was dramatized was filmed in September 2008, while the waves themselves were filmed a month later, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

On top of that, THR uncovered an alleged plot outline for the show that so clearly spelled out deception it contained the line, "The fiction we are constructing is that the big wave hit the Wizard on their steam up to Dutch." Unsurprisingly, the Discovery Channel denied any trickery, stating that an "insert edit" from "a separate time on the same journey" was used, because they didn't have the coverage they needed for the wave scene. Discovery president and general manager John Ford told THR the outline was "a rough draft that was rejected." He added, "Everything that you see in the show happened. Nothing is made up and nothing needs to be made up. The Wizard was struck by a big wave, and that wave caused the leak you see in the show. The show is 100% authentic."

Still seems...fishy. (Close enough)

Jerod Sechrist ran afoul of the law

Jerod Sechrist appeared in a couple of iterations of Deadliest Catch in 2016, braving the sea as a member of Captain Wild Bill's courageous Cape Caution crew. (He's best known for bringing some real industrial fishing drama to the show — the operation nearly had to pay a huge fine because Sechrist, reportedly an experienced crab catcher, couldn't tell the different between male and female crabs... the latter of which cannot be caught so as to ensure crab populations stay robust.) Three years after his auspicious TV debut, Sechrist was busted by Tampa, Florida, police on a slew of drug charges. According to TMZ, authorities arrested Sechrist on an unrelated warrant for reckless driving, and when they took him in for processing in the middle of the night, a small bag full of white powder was found on his person. A test revealed that the substance was heroin. Booked on a charge of felony heroin possession and a drug paraphernalia misdemeanor, police released Sechrist after 43 days behind bars.

Scarcely a month later, Sechrist again found himself on the wrong side of the law. According to the Tampa Police Department (via People), Sechrist allegedly stole more than $1,300 worth of stuff from an IKEA store.

Jason King has had some legal issues

Jason "Tennessee" King served a deckhand on the Cornelia Marie under Deadliest Catch Captains Josh Harris and Casey McManus. His stint aired in 2015, but off the show, King found himself facing some serious charges that carried with them some serious prison time. According to the Jackson Sun, a massive coalition of government agencies raided King's Counce, Tennessee home in April 2017, among them the Hardin County Sheriff's Office, the 24th Judicial District Task Force, the 15th Judicial District Drug Task Force, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Explosives. The raid was a success for law enforcement, but bad news for King — agents uncovered various bags of marijuana that added up to 14 pounds along with a loaded, .38-caliber handgun.

That much marijuana is illegal, and so is having a gun in one's home... if a person is a felon, that is. As King had prior convictions, he faced an illegal firearms charge in addition to the drug ones. A Western District of Tennessee judge handed down the sentence to King in July 2019: 51 months in prison, the maximum allowed by law.