Fla. man pleads guilty to venomous snakes, turtles trafficking
VALDOSTA, Ga. (WALB) - A Florida reptile dealer pleaded guilty to shipping venomous snakes and turtles from his Valdosta home as part of “Operation Middleman,” a multi-agency investigation focusing on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Miami, Fla., pleaded guilty to one count Lacey Act trafficking and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon before U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson on Thursday.
The maximum sentence under the Lacey Act and illegal possession of a firearm charge are five and 10 years of imprisonment, respectively, and a $250,000 fine for each charge.
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23, 2022, in Valdosta, the Justice Department said.
“Trafficking venomous or endangered wildlife through the mail clearly puts the delivery couriers and the public at risk and can harm the boxed animals. Our office will enforce Lacey Act law put in place to protect the public and our nation’s wildlife,” said Peter Leary, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “Law enforcement agencies working on Operation Middleman are successfully preventing the illegal smuggling of wildlife out of the United States and protecting our citizens.”
Court documents state Rance agreed to ship three eastern box turtles and 16 spotted turtles to someone in Florida from his Valdosta home, knowing that the ultimate destination was China. Rance got a $3,300 payment for the turtles. On Feb. 22, 2018, Rance shipped the 19 turtles in a box labeled as “Live Tropical Fish.” On May 10, 2018, Rance agreed to send a package to Florida from Valdosta with a label stating that it contained harmless reptiles and ball pythons when Rance shipped 15 Gaboon vipers, which are venomous snakes, according to court documents. The vipers’ ultimate destination was China. On May 11, 2018, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Rance’s Valdosta home, where they recovered a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun.
The Justice Department said it is illegal for Rance, who is a convicted felon, to possess a firearm.
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. Rance acknowledged that he 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 spotted turtle, known as Clemmys guttata, is a semi-aquatic turtle native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. The eastern box turtle, known as Terrapene carolina carolina, is endemic to forested regions of the East Coast and Midwest. The Gaboon viper, known as Bitis gabonica, is native to central Sub-Saharan Africa. Its venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness or death.
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