ALSIP, Ill. — The trailer loaded with nine tigers and two lions rolled past the wire-fenced gates under the cover of night so that no outsiders were around to see what was about to happen.
Heavy double doors lifted and the zebra-striped truck that had hauled the trailer from Wisconsin entered the brightly lighted warehouse.
Two men waited inside with handguns.
The driver got out, carrying a stick. He poked it through the slats of the trailer to prod the trapped animals into position to make it easier for the shooters taking aim.
The gunmen opened fire, killing eight of the tigers.
Their work had just begun.
All three men dragged the bloody carcasses out of the trailer and onto the concrete floor. The shooters began skinning the tigers, then loaded them up for their final destination: an exotic butcher shop in another suburb of Chicago.
There, according to the one of the gunmen, the skinning was completed, and the carcasses hung on hooks, weighed and sold by the pound. But tiger meat, authorities say, was labeled as lion -- which is legal to sell.
Two days later, the driver of the truck was frustrated. He still had a tiger and two lions in that load that had been rejected because they were too small. Now he wanted to get rid of them.
"I'm gonna shoot 'em and throw 'em in a hole!" he warned.
This secret slaughter in March 1998, described in court records by two of those involved, was part of a ruthless black market: a ring that, authorities say, bought, killed and sold endangered species -- tigers and leopards -- for tens of thousands of dollars.
"There's an old saying that if you can make a dollar off of it, there will be someone trying to kill it and sell it," said Tim Santel, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led a 4 1/2-year investigation that resulted in charges against 16 people.
The illegal trade in exotic and endangered species, from big cats to tiny beetles and butterflies, is a multibillion-dollar business.
Some are smugglers who cross international borders with fragile and sometimes dangerous animals -- Komodo dragons in suitcases, pythons around their waists.
Others work inside the United States, trading in rare animals from roadside zoos and mom-and-pop game parks, specialty magazines and Internet sites.
The investigation led by Santel underscored a cruel reality: There may be more tigers in private hands in the United States than in the wild -- and, chopped up for their meat and hides, they can be worth more dead than alive.
"You still have these black holes of horror and butchery going on," said Jim Mason, an animal activist in Missouri. "It's like the drug trade. We know it's bad ... but we don't have the means or the will to put an end to it."
Santel and other wildlife agents documented the killing of 17 tigers, one leopard and one barasingha, an Asian swamp deer -- all endangered -- along with numerous African lions, cougars and ligers (a tiger-lion hybrid), which are not.
The cats were shot at close range while confined to cages or trailers.
Agents tracked a ring that spanned eight states -- Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri -- and involved animal park owners, taxidermists and "trophy hunters," whose only safari was into an underground that thrives on the slaughter of captive animals.
The ring shed light on a world where wildlife agents are spread thin, where tigers can be cheap -- a litter might go for as little as $750 -- and where the laws are filled with loopholes that are readily exploited.
Even when traffickers are caught, critics complain, the punishment isn't all that severe.
"For the most part ... it's really just a slap on the wrist," said Alan Green, author of "Animal Underworld," an expose of the trafficking of exotic and endangered species.
Judges and prosecutors aren't necessarily to blame; federal guidelines limit the length of sentences.
Fourteen of the 16 people charged in this case have pleaded guilty; two await court dates. The charges included violating the Endangered Species Act, which addresses the killing, and the Lacey Act, which covers the sale and transport of protected animals.
Of 10 people sentenced so far, Stoney Elam, former operator of an Oklahoma exotic animal farm, received the stiffest punishment: one year, half in home confinement. He also was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund.
Elam sold two tigers and three leopards to an undercover agent for $4,800, then falsified the paperwork to make it look as if it was a lawful donation.
It is a federal violation to sell endangered animals across state lines, but donations are permitted.
Todd Lantz, the driver who delivered the cats to the warehouse and brokered another deal involving four tigers that were later killed, was sentenced to five months in prison and fined $5,000.
His wife, Vicki, who pleaded guilty to aiding in the sale of tigers, received six months' home detention.
A judge condemned their conduct as cowardly.