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Finding Stolen Snakes Took a Little Legwork

An Anaheim Hills man helps set up a sting that nets nine of 14 missing pythons worth $75,000.

September 24, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

For months, Jeff Houston hunted as best he could for his missing ball pythons -- $75,000 worth of reptiles swiped from his Anaheim Hills home in January.

He checked pet stores, talked with fellow hobbyists, scrolled the Internet, and kept his fingers crossed that the 14 missing snakes would come slithering home.

Last week he got lucky. After noticing that someone was selling an adult male Mojave ball python for $18,000 on the Internet, Houston set up a sting operation that put the alleged snake rustler behind bars and brought nine of his serpents back home.

"I never gave up hope," said an upbeat Houston, 32, a pool contractor.

The stolen pythons were by far the most valuable members of his extended snake family. In all, he had more than 100 snakes, but the exotic pythons were worth so much money he'd come to view them as his means of retirement.

After exhausting what he figured was any hope of turning up his snakes, Houston was noodling around a website for reptile and amphibian enthusiasts one day when an ad posted by someone named "Tina" caught his attention.

"Tina" wanted $18,000 for a rare, 800-gram adult male Mojave ball python -- a top-drawer snake among collectors. Suspicious, he asked for more information. "She was really difficult to get information from," Houston said.

He said he thought about calling police, but figured he'd know better than anyone whether the advertised python was one of his. Not wanting to push his luck by asking too many questions, he asked a relative to e-mail "Tina" and ask for a photo of the snake.

"There's no question at all this is my snake," Houston said about the photo. "No two snakes have the same pattern, just like fingerprints."

Houston, using his relative's e-mail address, said he told "Tina" that a friend who was in the area for a reptile trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center would buy the python.

That's when Houston called police, who agreed to have an officer pose as the buyer. On Sept. 14, the undercover officer met "Tina" at a martial arts school, where Jeffery Quon, 24, of Anaheim Hills was arrested.

He had bought two snakes from Houston before the break-in. Quon, a karate instructor, was booked into Anaheim City Jail on suspicion of burglary and possession of stolen property. He was released on $50,000 bail.

The 2-foot-long snake "had distinguishing marks and matched exactly with [a] picture that was given to us by Houston," said Anaheim Police Sgt. Rick Martinez. On the snake's midbody is a pattern roughly the shape of Italy, Houston said, which his missing snake had.

Police said they took Houston to Quon's home, where he identified eight more of his pythons. Houston said he has accepted that the others were gone.

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