Feds indict man for allegedly trafficking thousands of turtles

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Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A federal grand jury sitting in Philadelphia indicted David Sommers, 62, of Levittown, Pennsylvania for trafficking in protected diamondback terrapins. The indictment charges Sommers with smuggling turtles and submitting false records for a package shipped to Canada and four violations of the Lacey Act for trafficking over 3,500 turtles in interstate commerce.

The USFWS seized over 3,400 diamondback terrapin hatchlings from Sommers’ house in October while executing a search warrant. They were able to coordinate with biologists and return the hatchlings back into their New Jersey native habitat.

The indictment alleges that throughout 2017 Sommers poached diamondback terrapins and their eggs from coastal marshes in New Jersey. He would then illegally sell the turtles in violation of the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits the sale of wildlife that had been taken in violation of law. The indictment also charges that in 2014, Sommers smuggled turtles to Canada and falsely labeled the package by claiming it contained a book.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William M. McSwain, and Acting Assistant Director Edward Grace of the Office of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the indictment today.

“The distinctive coloration and pattern of the diamondback terrapin make it highly susceptible to illegal poaching and smuggling,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to prosecute those who break our nation’s wildlife protection statutes for the sake of illegal profit.”

“Wildlife trafficking decimates many species worldwide and undermines the rule of law,” said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain. “Through the ongoing collaboration between ENRD, USFWS, and my Office, we have worked hard to stop wildlife trafficking dead in its tracks. Today’s indictment reaffirms our commitment to ending this destructive practice.”

“It is one of the highest priorities for special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement to investigate transnational criminal organizations targeting our native wildlife species. 3,400 protected turtles, native to the United States were interdicted and returned to the wild with cooperation from other federal, state and local agencies to support imperiled wild populations,” said Acting Assistant Director Edward Grace of USFWS’s Office of Law Enforcement.

Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are a semi-aquatic species of turtle native to brackish waters in eastern and southern United States. They are not found in the wild in Pennsylvania, but have a dwindling habitat range in neighboring New Jersey. The terrapins are prized in the reptile pet trade for their unique, diamond-shaped shell markings. The turtles are protected under New Jersey law and by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The United States, Canada, and approximately 181 other countries are signatories to CITES, which provides a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose continued survival is threatened by such trade. Due to declining populations, CITES listed the diamondback terrapin as threatened in 2013, and New Jersey banned collecting, possessing, and transporting them in 2016.

If convicted, Sommers faces a maximum sentence of 10 years incarceration on the smuggling charge and five years for the Lacey Act violations. The indictment also seeks to forfeit from Sommers all the turtles involved in the investigation.

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