Reptiles were smuggled between US and China, now man pleads guilty in SC, prosecutor says

Man smuggles turtles in and out of the U.S.

SC turtle smuggling ring made a lot of money in illegal trafficking, feds say. Here are some of the turtles involved.
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SC turtle smuggling ring made a lot of money in illegal trafficking, feds say. Here are some of the turtles involved.

A man who was involved in an international wildlife smuggling conspiracy pleaded guilty in a South Carolina courtroom Friday, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office.

Evidence showed that William Thomas Gangemi was part of a “syndicate” where protected turtles were exchanged back and forth between the United States and China, U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon said in the news release.

The 26-year-old New Jersey man faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison for his role in the conspiracy that was led by South Carolina’s Steven Baker, according to the news release.

The U.S. attorney said Baker pleaded guilty in June, per the news release.

The Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina is a safe place where efforts are being made to replenish the nations population of rare and endangered turtles.

The illegal wildlife trading involved buying and selling endangered and rare turtles, The State previously reported. Dealers in New York, Hong Kong and South Carolina participated, according to the newspaper.

Baker got turtles from Hong Kong to distribute in the United States and also shipped “turtles from the (U.S.) to Asia,” in the scheme that occurred from “January through June 2016,” the U.S. attorney said in the news release. Gangemi supplied Baker with turtles, and “shipped turtles domestically,” according to the news release.

The conspirators used Facebook to set up the smuggling, Lydon’s office reported in the news release.

Court records show that in some instances turtles were “covered in candy wrappers or stuffed in socks to prevent detection,” and shipped “in boxes labeled as snacks,” The State reported.

The U.S. Postal Service was used to make international shipments, according to Lydon’s office, which said several shipments were “intercepted” at JFK International Airport in New York, per the news release.

Rare turtles are traded illegally between the U.S. and Asia. Some are so rare there only a few hundred left in the world. The State/ Sammy Fretwell

Winston Holliday Jr., an assistant U.S. attorney, said that “illegal wildlife trading can be lucrative,” and records show the turtles involved are valued at more than $400,000, according to The State. But the prosecutor added that the scheme “threatens to eradicate important animal species while exposing the United States to disease from illegally imported animals,” the newspaper reported.

Gangemi and Baker are not the only people to plead guilty for their involvement in the crime, Lydon’s office said in the news release.

South Carolina men Joseph Logan Brooks, 29, and Matthew Tyler Fischer, 25, in addition to Florida man Matthew Harrison Kail, 30, pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy in September, the U.S. attorney’s office said in the news release.

Another S.C. resident, 48-year-old William Fischer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor wildlife trafficking charge in September, according to the news release.

“The illicit reptile trade is widespread,’‘ Holliday said to The State, which reported “many turtles bought and sold on the black market wind up either as food in Asia or as exotic pets,” according to experts.

Beach laws on Hilton Head Island, including those protecting wildlife such as sea turtles and sand dollars, and laws prohibiting things like fireworks and alcohol.

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Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.