SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a Southern California couple to six months in prison for smuggling nearly 1,000 protected sea turtle eggs from a small town in Mexico.
The couple intended to sell the eggs on the black market for use in Asian delicacies.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino ordered Olga and Luis Jimenez to spend six months in prison and three years on probation for attempting to smuggle 911 endangered sea turtle eggs across the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2014.
Stephen Lemish, Olga Jimenez's attorney, raised concerns over the $9,000 in restitution the couple was ordered to pay to the Mexican government for stealing its natural resources. He noted Olga Jimenez had made it through most of her life without ever being convicted of a crime and said he doubted her family's ability to foot even $25 per month for restitution.
"Having lived 52 years and then being put in jail probably has a deep impact on a person. At the time she believed she was doing something good for her family," Lemish told Sammartino.
The couple has two minor children, including a 12-year-old boy who lives with them, Lemish said, noting for the past year and a half "the thought of this hanging over their heads has taken its toll."
"I feel sorry about what happened to my kids," Olga Jimenez told Sammartino.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson ticked off a lengthy list of Olga Jimenez's offenses leading up to the case, including being stopped at the International Border more than six times for bringing in "commercial quantities" of seafood. Olga Jimenez has been turned away, had five parrots seized for not having proper paperwork and has paid fines for trying to bring in produce banned in the United States, Pierson told the court.
Pierson argued the Jimenezes "knew what they were doing" was wrong.
"It's common knowledge that sea turtles are endangered," Pierson said.
She also noted that Nayarit, Mexico, where the turtles were taken from, has a robust "ecotourism" economy which people visit to observe the turtles and learn more about the endangered animals. Only about 100 turtles flock to Nayarit to lay their eggs, Pierson said, a much smaller population than those who flock to beaches in places like South America.
When the Jimenez's took more than 900 Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs they essentially took 10 percent of the eggs laid that season, which Pierson said will have a "huge impact" on future generations of the endangered species.
The Olive Ridley sea turtles were listed as endangered in 1978.
Olga Jimenez traveled from Nayarit to Tijuana on Nov. 23 2014 by bus with over 60 pounds of the smuggled eggs stored in plastic bags in a cooler. The eggs were hidden under a thin layer of fish and shrimp and were separated by a layer of ice, according to Pierson.
The next day, Jose Jimenez drove to the border to meet his wife. The couple crossed back into the United States as pedestrians, leaving their two sons and Olga's sister in their car along with the huge coolers filled with the sea turtle eggs. When the family's car was sent to secondary inspection, Pierson said Olga Jimenez was unwilling to speak to agents on the phone when her children called them.
Pierson said Olga Jimenez was known as a seafood vendor in Los Angeles. But when federal agents scoured phone records for potential clients she may have called following the egg seizure, their investigation turned up no leads.
Since the eggs were on ice for more than 24 hours, they were no longer viable unlike other smuggling cases were eggs have been returned to the beach and have hatched, Pierson said.
Sammartino said it was "significant" that Olga Jimenez knew about commercial quantities of seafood, noting she had a "background" in dealing with authorities while crossing the border with coolers full of shrimp, fish and produce.
"Despite disagreements over the number, we know in the U.S. it was an extremely large single seizure, if not the largest, and that's significant. There was nothing viable about the eggs and the offense put natural resources at risk," Sammartino told Olga Jimenez as she handed down the sentence.
When Jose Jimenez's attorney Mark Adams addressed the court, he told Sammartino that his client did not understand the seriousness of the consequences he faced and was trying to make a living and support his family.
"At the end of the day, this family doesn't have anything left. Pretty much anything that comes in, goes out," Adams said.
Adams said Jose Jimenez was willing to surrender to agents shortly after the smuggling operation was intercepted, which Pierson said she knew nothing about.
Sammartino also ordered Jose Jimenez to serve 6 months in prison and three years probation. The couple will serve staggered sentences so they can still care for their children.
Catherine Pruett, executive director for Sea Shepherd Legal, a nonprofit environmental law firm, said Friday's sentencing is a "step in the right direction."
Pruett said most smuggling cases result in probation and fines, which she said is not a strong enough deterrent. She added that a major problem with identifying wildlife smugglers is that there needs to more funding and training of authorities on what to look out for.
Sea Shepherd's Nick Fromherz echoed that sentiment, noting that market demand in the United States drives wildlife smuggling.
"Most people assume that East Asian markets drive demand, but the U.S. is the second-largest destination market for illegal wildlife. These products sell for $100 to $300 a piece and if the potential consequence is you're just turned away at the border and have to pay a small fine, that's worth the risk," Fromherz said.
Fromherz said judges need to give harsher sentences to wildlife traffickers and should "start throwing wildlife into that constellation of other illegally traded products including drugs, arms and human trafficking."
Many international terrorist organizations, including many in Africa, use the same distribution and smuggling channels for wildlife as they do for drugs and guns, Fromherz said.
A restitution hearing has been set for June 10, during which self-surrender dates for both Olga and Luis Jimenez will also be determined.Follow @@BiancaDBruno
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