The United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California is handling the prosecution of 34-year-old Rodrigo Franco, who was arrested earlier this week on charges he illegally imported protected and dangerous animals into the United States in violation of federal anti-smuggling laws and the Endangered Species Act. The live animals, shipped from Hong Kong, included three protected and highly venomous king cobras—each hidden in an otherwise empty potato chip can—and three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. If convicted, Franco could face up to twenty years in prison for illegally importing the reptiles.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents discovered the snakes and turtles on March 2. After safely removing the snakes from the package, CBP allowed the turtles to be delivered to Franco’s address. Agents from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Department of Homeland Security subsequently searched Franco’s apartment, where they found additional live animals, among them a young Morelet’s crocodile, two sub-species of snapping turtles, and five terrapins. Franco disclosed to authorities his receipt of twenty king cobras in two earlier shipments, but assured agents the snakes had died.
Prosecutors allege, however, that Franco’s phone records tell a different story. The records include messages between Franco and an individual in Asia in which the two discussed the allegedly surreptitious import and export of turtles and snakes to and from the United States, as well as the feeding, maintenance, and transfer of some of the snakes to an individual in Virginia. Finally, an additional parcel Franco shipped from his Monterey Park, California address to Hong Kong was intercepted by authorities on the same date on which agents discovered the king cobras. That parcel contained six protected turtles: a desert box turtle, three-toed box turtles, and ornate box turtles.
The Endangered Species Act, enacted in 1973, provides for the conservation and protection of threatened or endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they live. The law bars the import, export, possession, sale, delivery, or transport of any species of endangered fish or wildlife. The statute provides for a whistleblower award from the proceeds of any penalties, fines, or forfeitures recovered “to any person who furnishes information which leads to an arrest, a criminal conviction, civil penalty assessment, or forfeiture of property for any violation” of the law. The government designates the award amount as it deems appropriate.
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