Virginia Man Pleads Guilty to Trafficking Turtles

A man in Virginia who illegally caught and sold turtles across the United States has pleaded guilty to conducting a trafficking scheme that made him thousands of dollars and sent many of the animals to Asia, where they are in high demand as pets, the Justice Department said Monday.

The man, Stanlee Fazi, 41, of Louisa, Va., pleaded guilty in federal court to trafficking turtles from July 2017 to June 2020. During that time, he collected Eastern box turtles — which have bright yellow or orange markings on their cocoa-colored shells — and shipped them to buyers in the United States.

Many of the animals were then sold to people in Hong Kong and China, where the illegal pet turtle trade is booming, prosecutors said. Turtle populations there are in decline because of their use in the pet trade, in Asian folk medicines and as food.

Mr. Fazi admitted that he had bound the turtles in socks and shipped them via FedEx from Fredericksburg, Va., making about $12,700 in the scheme, the Justice Department said in a news release. He will be sentenced in July and faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Mr. Fazi’s lawyer, Edward J. Ungvarsky, said in a statement that his client “loves turtles and publicly sold a small number of turtles that he found over several years to fellow aficionados here in the United States.”

“He never intended for any of them to be sent to Asia,” Mr. Ungvarsky added.

Virginia law prohibits the taking and selling of any turtle species from the wild; it is a federal crime to violate state wildlife laws.

Mr. Fazi’s case is the latest to catch the attention of federal authorities who have been investigating a growing illegal, international pet trade worsened by the pandemic after people who were spending more time at home sought exotic pets, particularly species easy to keep and smuggle.

Eastern box turtles, slow, sturdy creatures native to the eastern United States that reach up to six inches long and live for up to a century, are especially in demand in Asia.

Indeed, many species of turtles in Asia are endangered, and climate change and habitat destruction have made their futures even more dire, according to the University of Hawaii. Conservationists have described the phenomenon as the “Asian turtle crisis.”

But the shipments of Eastern box turtles to Asia have contributed to the species’ decline in the United States. The Eastern box turtles are also an invasive species in Asia and may spread disease there.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation found that at least 1,500 native turtles — including wood turtles, spotted turtles and Eastern box turtles — were illegally smuggled to Asia between June 2017 and December 2018.

The illegal pet trade in the United States has led some to believe that the underground market is an easy way to make money, said Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund, an expert on international wildlife trafficking and trade. The premise, he said, seems simple: You find turtles outside, collect them and sell them online.

“What we have found is that it is so easy to put things on social media without detection,” Mr. Allan said in an interview.

Mr. Fazi deployed that social media strategy in his scheme, according to prosecutors.

Court records show that on July 26, 2017, he posted on Facebook Marketplace’s “Virginia Reptile Classifieds” that he was “looking for any and all box turtles. Message me and let me know what you have.”

Such open queries are typical in the illegal turtle trade, Mr. Allan said, because people “can avoid detection” easily. Sometimes they change keywords with emojis or with code words when trying to communicate in a sale, he said.

Facebook, which prohibits such transactions on its site, is one of the major platforms that is being taken advantage of in the exotic pet trade, Mr. Allan said.

“It’s so difficult to tell the difference between somebody just showing a nature video” or someone trying to sell an exotic animal by being clever in their messaging, Mr. Allan said. He noted, though, that detection is improving because of more sophisticated algorithms.

Some of Mr. Fazi’s most financially lucrative sales involved “screamer” Eastern box turtles, which are highly desired because of their vibrant coloration. They can have streaks of red and yellow on shells dazzled with dots and bright red eyes.

Mr. Fazi offered to sell a pair of screamers for $400, according to prosecutors.

In one message to a customer that appeared in court records, Mr. Fazi boasted that he had a lot of screamers in his possession.

“I will always supply you with easterns man,” Mr. Fazi wrote. “No need to go anywhere else.”

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