Saving rare and endangered turtles in South Carolina
A federal judge sentenced the S.C. leader of an international wildlife smuggling ring to more than a year in prison Monday for his role in trading rare turtles on the black market from his home in rural Orangeburg County.
The 16 months Steven Verren Baker will spend in a federal detention facility represents one of the first times anyone will have gone to prison in South Carolina for involvement in the illegal wildlife trade, prosecutors said after Monday’s court hearing.
U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson handed down a 27 month-sentence, but Anderson gave Baker credit for the 11 months the Holly Hill man has spent in jail awaiting resolution of the case. Anderson said that while Baker’s crime was non-violent, it was a serious offense.
Baker, a 38-year-old with bipolar disorder, has been awaiting sentencing since pleading guilty to a wildlife trafficking charge last June. He faced up to five years in prison but Baker got credit for helping federal authorities prosecute others who were part of the smuggling operation.
Baker was the kingpin of the international smuggling scheme in South Carolina, regularly trading rare turtles with Asian businessmen on the black market, prosecutors said. An Augusta, Ga.,-native, Baker is one of the most widely known wildlife traders in South Carolina, having had run-ins with authorities for parts of the past 14 years.
Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case, said people thinking of dealing wildlife illegally in South Carolina should pay attention to Monday’s sentence.
“It sends a message that you’re facing real jail time,’’ Holliday said.
Wildlife trafficking is a concern in South Carolina because some turtle species that once were abundant are being trapped and shipped overseas, which threatens to disrupt the balance of nature, authorities say.
Baker, wearing shackles and a prison jumpsuit, has been in jail since last spring after his arrest. After he was charged in early 2018, Baker fled from authorities and was considered a fugitive at one point.
He had little to say at Monday’s sentencing hearing, but apologized for his actions, then shook Holliday’s hand before being whisked away by federal guards. Baker’s court-appointed attorney, federal public defender James Rogers, said Baker is sorry for his actions.
“He tells me he is not going to do this again,’’ Rogers said.
After pleading guilty, Baker helped prosecutors with the investigation that involved at least five other men with South Carolina ties. They also have pleaded guilty in federal court. Holliday declined to comment when asked if the investigation was continuing. A pre-sentencing court document says the names of some people who conspired with Baker are sealed.
Baker, whose parents went to prison when he was 8 years old, was found guilty of a wildlife trafficking charge in 2015 for selling rare spotted turtles, but he received probation.
Federal officials became aware of the latest operation in 2016 when inspectors opened packages at New York’s JFK International Airport and found 48 endangered Chinese and South American turtles nestled in piles of candy and noodles.
Jason Hsu, a New York man arrested in that case, told authorities about the South Carolina conspirators. He was a key connection for S.C. turtle smugglers, according to evidence in the case. The smugglers used Facebook to keep in touch with each other, according to evidence. The scheme involved turtle dealers in New York, Hong Kong and the Carolinas.
South Carolina, with its marshes, lakes and low-lying country, is known as a prime breeding ground for numerous kinds of turtles that fetch high prices in China. A lot of money can also be made smuggling turtles, some of which are worth thousands of dollars on the international black market. For example, one rare Indian Star Tortoise, a species smuggled into the U.S. by Baker’s ring, can sell for more than $2,000.
A neighbor of Baker’s told The State last year that Baker once earned $100,000 dealing in turtles from his home in the Holly Hill area.
South Carolina is a prime spot for reptile smugglers because state laws are relatively weak. In one case, a Florida man imported more than 200 deadly African snakes to South Carolina through the Atlanta airport.
The shadowy reptile trading industry is imperiling native species in the Palmetto State as Chinese traders seek turtles for pets or food to replace once abundant species in Asia, The State reported in an investigative series last year.
Last week, a Harleyville father and son — William “Bill” Fischer, 48, and Matt Fischer, 26 — were sentenced to probation for their relatively minor roles in Baker’s smuggling operation. Evidence in the case showed the Fischers received packages of money or small numbers of smuggled turtles. The elder Fischer attended Monday’s sentencing hearing. He said before the hearing he hoped the judge would “throw the book’’ at Baker.
Another S.C. turtle smuggler, Joseph Logan Brooks, 29, believed to be from Rock Hill, received five months in prison for his part in the scheme.
Turtle smuggling is just one of various environmental crimes that target endangered or prohibited wildlife. Other creatures and items smuggled into or out of the United States include snakes, rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks, as well as various kinds of plants.
“I am pleased with the outcome of the investigation and prosecution to date,’’ said Tom Chisdock, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who investigated the case. “It’s been successful due to the cooperation of several state and federal partners.’’