Politics & Government

He illegally traded rare turtles to make money. Now, he’s suffering the consequences.

A New Jersey wildlife trader who grew up in the family business was sentenced to two years probation Monday for his role in an international turtle smuggling scheme that ensnared five other people with South Carolina ties.

William “Billy” Gangemi, a 26-year-old Freehold, N.J., resident, must remain at home for the next six months, except to go to work, church or a handful of other activities, according to the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson.

Unlike three others involved in the illegal turtle smuggling operation, Gangemi did not receive prison time and will be allowed to continue to attend legal wildlife trade shows as part of his business.

But probation means he can be hauled back into court and imprisoned if he violates the terms.

During his court appearance before Anderson, Gangemi said, “I’ve learned my lesson.’’

Running afoul of federal authorities ”made me open my eyes to what I was doing,’’ said Gangemi, neatly dressed in a sport coat and accompanied by a small entourage of people.

Gangemi’s sentence marks what’s expected to be the final South Carolina chapter in a smuggling operation that involved the black market sale of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of turtles between the U.S and China. All others with South Carolina connections have pleaded guilty and received sentences, including the South Carolina ringleader, Steven Verren Baker of Holly Hill.

From his home in rural Orangeburg County, Baker routinely bought turtles from China and sold turtles harvested from the swamps and woodlands of South Carolina for distribution overseas. The sales involved dealing with traders in New York and Hong Kong.

Anderson sentenced Baker to more than a year in prison and a co-conspirator, Matt Kail, to one year in prison. A third man, Joseph Logan Brooks, received five months in prison, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Those prison sentences are believed to be the first in South Carolina for illegal turtle trading.

The smuggling operation involved shipping turtles, sometimes disguised in candy packages and socks, in an attempt to avoid detection. Shipments often involved sending the reptiles without food and water, a practice investigators have called cruel. Some of the animals died during shipment. Federal prosecutors in New York have handled that end of the smuggling probe that involved shipments through the city to and from Asia.

Across the Southeast, the illegal trade in reptiles — particularly turtles — is a widespread concern, federal officials have said. The region has an abundance of turtles that are in demand for pets or food in Asia and other parts of the world. Some turtles can bring as much as $10,000 apiece if offered for sale, making the black market a lucrative enterprise. Baker earned more than $100,000 in the business in one year, a neighbor and wildlife authorities told The State last year.

In Gangemi’s case, he initially fought the federal wildlife charges, but pleaded guilty late last year to conspiracy to smuggle wildlife, a charge that could have landed him in prison for five years. Federal authorities said he trafficked in turtles with a total value of between $15,000 and $40,000 three years ago.

Gangemi did not receive prison time because his role in the turtle scheme was not as extensive as some of the others, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. His attorney, Greg Harris of Columbia, said Gangemi also volunteered information to help prosecutors in New York make cases.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia, Gangemi collected turtles for Baker, exchanging text messages with the South Carolina man and shipping the turtles in the United States.

Transactions were set up through Facebook’s message system, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities intercepted several packages at New York’s John. F. Kennedy International Airport, prosecutors say.

Gangemi’s name was the last to surface publicly for his role in the scheme. His family has operated a legitimate wildlife business for more than 40 years and he will continue to work in legal wildlife trading, Harris said after Monday’s sentencing. But his client got in trouble by trying to cut corners, Harris said, noting that Baker was Gangemi’s South Carolina connection.

“He took shortcuts,’’ Harris said.

While the country is full of legal wildlife trade shows, including reptile shows in South Carolina, federal prosecutor Winston Holliday said people sometimes run astray. What landed Baker, Gangemi and others in court was trading in smuggled wildlife, as well as dealing federally protected species, Holliday said.

“There is an underbelly that is illegal,’’ Holliday said.

As part of Gangemi’s probation, he will be allowed to continue doing business at legal wildlife trade shows on weekends, an allowance that Holliday said he could not prevent. Part of his business involves attending shows several times a month, Harris said.

Reptile shows are huge trade events in which people buy live snakes, turtles and lizards, as well as accessories and food for the animals.

Holliday said it will be important for Gangemi to resist temptation at the wildlife shows.

“It’s like an ex-smoker hanging out with smokers, but it’s legal,’’ Holliday said. “I have no basis to say he can’t go.’’

Holliday, an assistant U.S. Attorney who handled the case, said prosecution of Gangemi and others was important to let wildlife traders know to do business legitimately or face the consequences. In this case, half of the men with South Carolina connections received prison time.

The black market for wildlife is a worldwide problem that includes the sale of all types of animals and animal parts, including venomous snakes and elephant tusks.

In South Carolina, the illegal turtle trade is particularly worrisome because state laws aren’t as strict as other states, allowing traders to amass large quantities of turtles for illegal shipment, The State newspaper reported last year in a series on illegal wildlife smuggling. Officials familiar with the turtle trade have said the sale of native turtles threatens to deplete some species in the Palmetto State, upsetting the balance of nature.