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Conservation

Man pleads guilty to smuggling tiny turtles between US and Hong Kong, disguised in candy wrappers

  • William Thomas Gangemi was part of a syndicate of traders in the US and Hong Kong who exchanged the rare reptiles, labelled for shipping as ‘snacks’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 1:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 1:49am

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

Some tiny turtles were disguised in candy wrappers, court records showed.

William Thomas Gangemi was part of a “syndicate” where protected turtles were exchanged back and forth between the United States and Hong Kong, US 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.

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

The illegal wildlife trading involved buying and selling endangered and rare turtles, The State newspaper 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 [US] to Asia,” in the scheme that occurred from “January through June 2016,” the US 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 labelled as snacks,” The State reported.

The US 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.

Winston Holliday Jnr, an assistant US attorney, said that “illegal wildlife trading can be lucrative,” and records show the turtles involved are valued at more than US$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.

Hong Kong is second largest market in the world for smuggled endangered black spotted turtles

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 US attorney’s office said in the news release.

Another South Carolina resident, 48-year-old William Fischer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour 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.