They’re smuggling what from South Jersey?
CAMDEN – A man who allegedly bankrolled a smuggling ring made $100,000 from secret shipments between the United States and China, an indictment says.
But the criminal network didn’t deal in drugs or stolen technology.
It trafficked in turtles.
An indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Camden alleges poachers caught turtles across the country, then sent them to middlemen for shipment to the ring’s operators to Hong Kong.
Once in Asia, the turtles could command staggering prices in a “black market pet trade,” a court record says.
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It claims the ring’s alleged financier, Kang Juntao of China, directed his U.S. suppliers — including one in South Jersey — to smuggle some 1,500 turtles worth $2.2 million.
Turtles from five species were shipped without permits required under federal law and an international treaty intended to protect wildlife, according to the Feb. 13 indictment.
But one of the ring’s middlemen was an undercover agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Special Agent Ryan Bessey, working from Atlantic County, received almost $80,000 from Kang for turtle purchases between June 2017 and December 2018, court records allege.
That trade included 50 eastern box turtles smuggled in September 2017 and 25 spotted turtles shipped between July 25 and Aug. 16, 2017, Bessey said. All of those turtles were sent to Bessey from a supplier in North Carolina, he noted.
Turtles poached in this country can bring thousands of dollars in China, Hong Kong and Japan, the agent said.
“Turtles with intense and unique spot patterns are sought after in the domestic and foreign pet trade,” he said.
“A spotted turtle is valued, on average, at $650 in the Hong Kong pet trade market. Wood turtles are valued at approximately $2,000 each,” Bessey said.
“Colorful box turtles can be valued at $20,000 each,” he added.
Smuggled turtles can also be sold abroad for use in food or traditional medicine, federal authorities said in announcing the indictment in August 2018 of a Minnesota man who tried to ship 38 box turtles to Hong Kong in packages labeled as « toys » and « components.”
Bessey alleged Kang, 22, taught the ring’s middlemen — “frequently Chinese citizens who entered the country on student visas” — to conceal turtles during shipment.
“He instructed them how to bind the turtles in socks and with duct tape,” said the agent.
“This method is common among turtle smugglers so the animals do not scratch at the box resulting in detection,” according to a government filing in the recent prosecution of a suburban Philadelphia man who allegedly poached diamondback terrapins and their eggs from marshy areas at the Jersey Shore.
That man, David Sommers, drew attention when authorities found 11 turtles in a package shipped to Canada from his Levittown address in August 2014.
Shipping materials with the package indicated it held a book, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.
Investigators hid tracking devices on Sommers’ cars that showed late-night trips to a terrapin habitat in Tuckerton, Ocean County, in the summer of 2017, the government filing said.
It claimed New Jersey conservation officers found a dozen turtle eggs after stopping Sommers’ car one night in the Great Bay Wildlife Management Area. “They also observed freshly dug turtle nests along the road near (Sommers’) car,” the filing added.
It said surveillance indicated Sommers was incubating turtle eggs at his home, where a search found almost 3,500 terrapin hatchlings and 23 box turtles in October 2017.
Sommers earlier this month admitted guilt, under a plea agreement, to falsely labeling a package of turtles. He awaits sentencing.
Federal prosecutors are seeking the extradition of Kang, 22, who was arrested last month at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
According to Bessey, Kang admitted his role in the turtle trade, telling Malaysian police he worked with an associate in Hong Kong who sold the reptiles as pets.
The indictment charges Kang with money laundering, alleging he sent money to the United States “to promote a specified unlawful activity.”
Bessey alleged Kang had « at least six middlemen » in five states.
He claimed Kang “sought to purchase numerous species of protected turtles, including the eastern box turtle, Florida box turtle, Gulf Coast box turtle, wood turtle and spotted turtle.”
“He prized purchasing adult female turtles,” the agent added.
Court records also alleged Kang « has purchased vipers from Canada and attempted to purchase them from Africa.”
Jim Walsh: @jimwalsh_cp; 856-486-2646; firstname.lastname@example.org