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Exotic turtles seized at LAX in smuggling arrest

Two Japanese men are charged with sealing rare animals in cracker and cookie boxes.

January 11, 2011|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

In the annals of smuggling, Los Angeles International Airport has seen it all — lizards in luggage, songbirds strapped to a passenger's legs, boxes of tarantulas and two pygmy monkeys hidden in a traveler's pants.                   

Now, officials said, they have recorded another milestone in the animal kingdom — smuggled turtles.

Authorities said two Japanese men were arrested with more than 50 live rare turtles, from Chinese big-headed turtles to Indian Star tortoises, packed neatly inside snack food boxes.

On Monday, Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, 49, were charged in a two-count criminal complaint alleging that they illegally imported wildlife into the United States, a smuggling offense that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, and one count of violating the Endangered Species Act, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.?

Federal officials, who arrested the men Friday, said the suspects had 55 live turtles sealed inside snack boxes of cookies and crackers.

Authorities said their investigation began a year ago, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents learned of a smuggling operation that was illegally bringing turtles into the United States.

They said they infiltrated the ring over the summer in an investigation known as "Operation Flying Turtle," which included the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents arrested one of Yamagami's associates at Honolulu International Airport trying to smuggle more than 40 turtles in a package, the man told them that Yamagami had paid him about 100,000 yen or about $1,200 and travel expenses to smuggle the reptiles, authorities said.

"The plundering and smuggling of rare plants and animals to satisfy the desires of hobbyists is not only shameful, in some circumstances it can pose a threat to public safety and the environment," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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