HILTON HEAD, SC — A Hilton Head Island business owner received three years of probation Thursday after pleading guilty to multiple counts of illegal distribution of baby turtles and one count of impersonating a federal agent.
Steve Maleh, 42, who owns and operates Island Breeze on North Forest Beach Drive, was sentenced in federal court in Charleston by U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr., according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Maleh, of Plantation, Fla., was arraigned last year in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a seven-count indictment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Hilton Head Island code enforcement officials investigated complaints the store was providing baby turtles to customers.
The federal government has banned the sale of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long since 1975, in an attempt to prevent exposing people, especially children, to salmonella, which can be regularly found on the turtles, according to the FDA and U.S. Attorney's Office in Charleston.
"FDA's regulations help protect the public's health and safety; in this case, children who play with the small turtles are at high risk for infections," David W. Bourne, special agent in charge of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations in Miami, said in the news release.
Hilton Head code enforcement officers and FDA agents made multiple visits to the store over several years, informing Maleh and his staff that distributing juvenile turtles was illegal. But despite numerous warnings, Maleh continued to distribute the turtles to customers, according to a federal prosecutor.
The business sells beach gear, souvenirs, clothing and other merchandise, according to Maleh and town staff attorney Brian Hulbert, who aided in the investigation.
Hulbert said Island Breeze did not sell the turtles outright, but sold small aquariums for about $20 and included a baby turtle with the purchase. The town and U.S. Attorney's Office had issued numerous warnings to the business, but it continued the practice, he said.
The U.S. Attorneys Office says Maleh also pretended to be an FDA agent. An owner of a competing Hilton Head business received a letter, purportedly from the FDA, telling him to stop selling juvenile turtles or face fines and prosecution. An investigation revealed Maleh sent the letter, according the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"They made a mountain out of a mole hill," Maleh said by phone Thursday. "I've run a successful business on Hilton Head Island for 19 years and am respected in the community."
He said he intends to solicit signatures to present to Congress to overturn the "archaic law and to bring light to this injustice that I received because of this."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Bianchi of the Charleston office prosecuted the case.