Four men involved in an international wildlife smuggling operation with S.C. connections entered guilty pleas in federal court Wednesday for their roles in a scheme to illegally buy and sell rare turtles on the black market.
The men — three from South Carolina and one from Florida — admitted to involvement in the wildlife syndicate after the accused ringleader pleaded guilty to wildlife smuggling earlier this summer, records show. Those pleading guilty Wednesday included a man accused of shipping turtles illegally, and a father and son who received packages or money as part of the operation.
Wednesday’s pleas are the latest development in a federal probe of illegal wildlife trading between Hong Kong and South Carolina, an investigation that also has ensnared accused wildlife smugglers from New York and New Jersey. Traders in the United States and China exchanged turtles that were protected under international agreements, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Columbia.
The smuggling operation involved wrapping rare turtles in socks or candy paper, then putting them in shipping containers and labeling the boxes as snacks in an effort to avoid detection. Turtles traded between Hong Kong and the United States were valued at an estimated $400,000 on the black market, but possibly were worth more, prosecutors said Wednesday. The illegal trading, which occurred in 2016, was coordinated through the use of Facebook, federal lawyers said.
Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. attorney in Columbia, said the case sends a message that illegal wildlife smuggling is a serious crime. Bringing wildlife illegally into the United States or shipping it overseas can spread disease and hurt native animal populations in South Carolina, he said. Other cases similar to the one in South Carolina now are being prosecuted around the country, he said.
Prosecutors “are stepping up enforcement,’’ Holliday said.
Pleading guilty to wildlife conspiracy charges Wednesday were Matthew Harrison Kail, 30, of Pomona Park, Fla.; S.C. resident Joseph Logan Brooks, 29, whose last known address was Holly Hill; and Matthew Tyler Fischer, 25, of Harleyville.
All could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined $250,000, although their guilty pleas could help reduce the penalties. U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson will sentence the men later this year. In pleading guilty, they lose the right to vote or own a firearm, prosecutors said.
Harleyville resident William Martin Fischer, the 48-year-old father of Matthew Fischer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of wildlife trafficking. William Fischer faces a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. He also is awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors said the four men were involved in a wildlife smuggling syndicate led in South Carolina by Steven Verren Baker, a 38-year-old Holly Hill resident. Baker pleaded guilty June 19 to wildlife conspiracy charges and agreed to help prosecutors. Baker remains in the Richland County jail awaiting sentencing.
Baker was accused of receiving rare foreign turtles at an Orangeburg County address that he shared with Brooks. The turtles came from Hong Kong for distribution in the United States, the U.S. attorney’s office said. He also shipped American turtles to Asia, prosecutors said.
A chunk of Baker’s wildlife business involved working with Kail, who dealt with more than $300,000 worth of turtles, prosecutors said. Holliday, reading from a summary document in court, said Kail received cash for turtles he collected for Baker, or Kail was provided foreign turtles as compensation. At one point, he was accused of trapping protected turtles from a wildlife refuge in North Carolina.
The Fischers were accused of either receiving packages from Hong Kong at a Harleyville address or receiving tens of thousands of dollars.
All but Matthew Fischer declined comment.
After pleading guilty Wednesday, Matthew Fischer said he unwittingly became mixed up in the operation when Baker asked to use his bank accounts to receive money. Fischer said he worked with Baker in a legal wildlife sales business but did not realize until later that illegal sales also were involved.
“I was pretty much dragged in by Steve Baker because of the things he did,’’ Fischer said, adding he first met Baker when he was about 12 years old. He later worked and lived with Baker at a home in Holly Hill, sometimes babysitting Baker’s children, Fischer said. Fischer said he is sorry he became ensnared in the illegal wildlife trade.
“Do I believe I should be here? No. But do I see the government’s point of view? Yes,’’ Fischer said.
Some of the turtles imported to the U.S. were among the rarest in the world, including the big-headed turtle, an Asian reptile with a ferocious bite. Species collected in the Southeast and shipped overseas included the Eastern box turtle, a reptile familiar to many people in South Carolina, and the flattened musk turtle, described in a recent conservation report as one of North America’s smallest and rarest turtles.
The international trade in reptiles is a concern in South Carolina and other Southeastern states, where native turtles are being scooped up and shipped overseas for use as pets or food. Many Asian turtle species are dwindling, putting more pressure on Southeastern turtles. But Asian turtles also still are being sent to the United States in violation of international and U.S. laws.
The illegal wildlife trade is a shadowy business that can bring big money to those who deal in exotic animals. But it is imperiling native species, threatening to spread disease and attracting unsavory characters to the Palmetto State, The State newspaper reported in a series about the trade two months ago.
South Carolina has some of the nation’s weakest laws regulating the trade in reptiles, meaning criminal cases often are made by federal prosecutors with help from state investigators. South Carolina has provided the names of up to 30 suspects to federal authorities or other state agencies, although not all of the cases are related, The State newspaper reported in July.
Baker was considered one of South Carolina’s major wildlife dealers, state investigators said.
From his home in Holly Hill, he earned more than $100,000 during one year trading in turtles, The State reported in July. As part of his June guilty plea, Baker agreed to cooperate with investigators looking into others involved in the turtle-smuggling operation.