Fu Yiner, a Chinese national, pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to a felony count of smuggling in connection with his sale and shipment of the internationally protected sea turtle shell and the guitar picks, the Justice Department announced.
Fu and 10 others were indicted in Denver in August 2007 following a multi-year undercover investigation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Branch of Special Operations.
Code named Operation Central, the investigation targeted illegal sales of sea turtle parts from China and Mexico.
Fu and seven other defendants were arrested on September 6, 2007.
A critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle (Photo credit unknown)
As set forth in the indictment and acknowledged in today's plea agreement, Fu knowingly sent four shipments of raw hawksbill shell and guitar picks from China to people in the United States who turned out to be undercover agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working in Colorado during 2006 and 2007 in violation of U.S. law and international treaty.
The five kilograms of unworked shell and 300 guitar picks together were valued at over $3,000.
"Fu Yiner's guilty plea is the result of years of hard work and dedication to enforcing laws that protect our wildlife," said assistant attorney general Ronald Tenpas.
Wang Hong, a Chinese national indicted separately from Fu, pleaded guilty to smuggling on January 3. Wang admitted that he sent four shipments of hawksbill sea turtle shell and violin bows decorated with hawksbill sea turtle shell from China to people in the United States who turned out to be undercover agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working in Colorado during 2006 and 2007.
The products were valued at over $5,000.
Based on the statutory and advisory sentencing guideline factors, the sentencing range is six to 12 months in prison and a fine of $2,000 to $20,000. Fu will be sentenced on January 22, while Wang's sentencing is set for February 19.
"The slaughter of sea turtles and the black market sale of their shell further threaten already imperiled species," said Chief Benito Perez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. "Work on this investigation by our agents and federal prosecutors shows that those who traffic in protected wildlife will face serious consequences for their crimes."
Five of the seven species of sea turtles, including hawksbill sea turtles, are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
U.S. law requires that wildlife or wildlife products entering the United States be clearly marked and declared to customs or wildlife officials upon entry, requires permits for trade in or handling of many species of wildlife, and prohibits commercial trade in endangered species such as hawksbill sea turtles.
In addition, international trade in all sea turtle parts for commercial purposes is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as the CITES treaty, a multilateral treaty to which the United States, China, and at least 170 other countries are parties.
"Trafficking in endangered species doesn't pay," said Troy Eid, U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado. "We will pursue these offenders across the globe to help save sea turtles for future generations."
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