Politics & Government

A black market wildlife trader is going to prison. His parents begged for mercy.

Matthew Kail grew up helping other children, working at youth camps and volunteering in his hometown of Cherry Hill, N.J., where his parents worked as attorneys.

A kind boy who developed into a compassionate young man, Kail was the subject of glowing newspaper stories that detailed his good deeds and accomplishments, court records show.

But along the way, Kail stumbled. As an adult, he became involved in the illegal wildlife trade, in which he helped capture rare turtles for shipment overseas. Some of the animals were packed into boxes, without food or water, federal records show. The shipments sometimes were disguised as candy.

On Tuesday, Kail and his family learned the consequences of those misdeeds as they sat in a Columbia courtroom. A federal judge sentenced Kail to a year in prison for his role in a black market reptile smuggling ring that stretched from South Carolina to New York and Hong Kong.

Kail and his parents expressed sadness at the missteps that will send him to prison.

“We were horrified and deeply troubled as we became familiar with the allegations detailing Matthew’s involvement in the trafficking of protected wildlife,’’ his parents said in a letter to the court.

Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case, said Kail’s story is a sad one, but he received prison time because his role in the wildlife ring was more substantial than many members of the smuggling operation in South Carolina. He was a key part of the operation, which was led in South Carolina by Steven Verren Baker, a notorious wildlife trader from Holly Hill, prosecutors said.

“The volume of turtles was comparable to what Baker was doing,’’ Holliday said of Kail. “He was definitely collecting in the wild. (The sentence) is significant. We are getting jail sentences for wildlife trafficking, which I think is a substantial disincentive for people who are engaged in trading.’’

U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson’s sentence makes Kail the second member of the ring to receive prison time. Baker received more than a year in prison at his sentencing hearing in March. At least three others with South Carolina connections have received probation and fines. The prison sentences for Baker and Kail are believed to be the first in South Carolina for illegal wildlife trading. Holliday said Kail will report to prison at a later date, likely in Florida.

Kail, a 31-year-old Pomona Park, Fla., resident who was born in South Carolina, pleaded guilty last September to wildlife conspiracy charges after prosecutors said he received cash and foreign turtles as payment for providing American turtles to the ring’s leader in South Carolina.

In their letter to the court, Kail’s parents said their son grew up fascinated by wildlife and always was drawn to people who were passionate about turtles, regardless of their character. They said he met Baker at a reptile show, became an acquaintance and was eventually “manipulated’’ by Baker. In a previous court appearance, Baker’s lawyers expressed remorse.

The turtles Kail dealt were collectively worth more than $300,000, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Kail knew he was illegally trading in protected turtles, including an array of foreign species, prosecutors say in court documents.

The issue of illegal wildlife trading is a worldwide problem as black market dealers seek animals and animal parts for sale as pets, trophies and food. The illegal reptile trade is of particular concern in the southeastern United States, where the demand for turtles is beginning to take its toll on some species.

States like South Carolina rely heavily on the federal government to prosecute many reptile cases because state reptile laws are so weak, The State reported in a 2018 series on the illicit wildlife trade. People trade in turtles because the black market can be lucrative. Baker once earned $100,000 trading turtles, the newspaper reported last year.

John Delgado, a Columbia defense attorney who represented Kail, said his client’s long-time passion and interest in wildlife eventually put him crossways with the law.

“It wasn’t money at first,’’ Delgado said Wednesday. “He wanted some unique turtles, he wanted species he didn’t necessarily have access to that he could gain by trading. But then the trading turned relatively soon into money, and that’s where he got in trouble. In his colloquy with the judge, he was emotional. He apologized because of what he brought on his family.’’

Despite his transgressions, Kail’s parents, family members and friends sent letters to the federal court, asking Anderson to show mercy in sentencing Kail. He faced up to five years in prison. Anderson’s one-year and one-day sentence allows Kail to get out of prison after 10 months for good behavior. Kail’s history of good works were taken into account by the judge, Delgado said.

In an April 22 letter to Anderson, Kail’s parents said they had dedicated their lives to public service and had installed that spirit in Kail and his younger brother, both of whom were adopted. That was evident when their elder son risked his safety to help federal authorities capture the ringleader of the turtle smuggling operation, according to the letter from Jill and Robert Kail.

Growing up, their older son worked as a volunteer at a New Jersey wildlife refuge and with the Delaware Riverkeeper organization. He also worked at a youth camp, where he once risked “life and limb to remove dangerous snapping turtles’’ that had endangered campers who swam in a pond, his parent’s letter said, noting that he always had an interest in nature and reptiles. Neighbors wrote letters saying Kail was kind to their children, including two autistic youngsters in New Jersey.

As a teenager, Kail was featured in a 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer article for his community service accomplishments. He told the newspaper he loved animals.

“Everyone who knows me knows my interest in wildlife because I’m the guy who always shows up with turtles, snakes, lizards, animal skulls, bug collections and frogs,’’ he told the Inquirer. At one point, he was credited with being the first person to discover that the Asian swamp eel, an invasive species, was living in New Jersey, his parents’ letter to Anderson said.

All those accomplishments made for a sad tale in federal court this week.

“We hope you will consider Matthew’s remorse, his prior great achievements and early integrity, as well as the substantial cooperation in helping apprehend the lead co-defendant .... and in proactively assisting the government,’’ his parents’ plea to Anderson said. “We thank your honor for permitting us to tell you about the Matthew we raised. We see Matthew saddened and remorseful, but now working to reestablish trust, esteem and reputation in all of his pursuits.’’

Staff Writer John Monk contributed to this story.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.