VALDOSTA, Ga. (WALB) - A reptile dealer in Valdosta appeared in federal court in Columbia, South Carolina on Wednesday for his initial appearance on the Lacey Act and firearms charges arising from an indictment unsealed in the Middle District of Georgia, according to Peter D. Leary the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.
On March 9, Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Dalzell, South Carolina, was charged by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Georgia for trafficking vipers and turtles, as well as illegally possessing two firearms, according to a press release.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents arrested Rance on March 30 on a warrant. The maximum sentence under the Lacey Act and firearms charges are five to 10 years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine for each charge.
The indictment says that in Feb. 2018, Rance sold 16 spotted turtles and three eastern box turtles to a buyer in Florida and shipped the reptiles from Valdosta in a package falsely labeled as containing tropical fish and lizards. The indictment also says that in May 2018, Rance sent a second package to Florida with a label stating that it contained harmless reptiles and ball pythons when actually Rance shipped 15 Gaboon vipers, which are venomous snakes.
Finally, the indictment says that in May 2018, law enforcement conducted a search at Rance’s Valdosta home, where they found a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. Rance has a prior felony conviction and it’s a violation of federal law for a convicted felon to possess a firearm.
“Illegal wildlife trafficking can have devastating effects, and our office will prosecute individuals found in violation of the Lacey Act and other environmental protection laws,” said Leary. “I want to thank the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ATF, and the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources for their work investigating this case.”
“Rance’s reckless shipment of venomous snakes and illegal possession of firearms demonstrates the dangers of wildlife trafficking,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “I applaud our federal and state law enforcement partners for keeping the public and delivery couriers safe.”
“Wildlife trafficking is a serious crime that impacts species at home and abroad,” said Special Agent in Charge Stephen Clark for the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement. “I would like to thank the Justice Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources for their assistance with this case. Together, we have stopped highly venomous snakes, and our nation’s own wildlife, from being smuggled.”
The federal Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits, among other things, transporting wildlife in interstate commerce if the wildlife was illegal under state laws. The indictment against him alleges that Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. It also is a Lacey Act violation to falsely label a package containing wildlife.
The case is being investigated by the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Fla., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as part of Operation Middleman. The operation focuses on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China.