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Doc Antle of ‘Tiger King’ fame charged with wildlife trafficking, money laundering

The owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari also awaits trial next month for similar charges filed in Virginia.

(CN) — A federal grand jury in Florence, South Carolina, returned a 10-count indictment Thursday bringing wildlife trafficking and money laundering charges against five people including Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, who was featured on the hit 2020 Netflix documentary series "Tiger King."

Antle, also known as Bhagavan Mahamayavi or Kevin Antle, owns and operates The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), better known as the Myrtle Beach Safari, a 50-acre wildlife preserve and tourist attraction in coastal South Carolina.

Also indicted were two owners of businesses that also run for-profit safari tours of captive exotic animals: Charles Sammut, owner of Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas, California, and Jason Clay, owner of the Franklin Drive Thru Safari in Franklin, Texas.

According to the Justice Department, the indictment alleges Sammut, Clay, Antle and two of his employees trafficked lemurs, cheetahs, a chimpanzee and other wildlife illegally in violation of federal law, including the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, and made false records regarding that wildlife. The indictment was not immediately available Thursday.

The billion-dollar criminal industry of wildlife trafficking involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture or collection of endangered species and protected wildlife.

Prosecutors also allege that over the last several months, Antle and Sawyer laundered more than $500,000 in cash they believed to be the proceeds of an operation to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mexican border into the United States.

Antle had allegedly used bulk cash receipts to purchase animals for which he could not use checks, and planned to conceal the cash he received by inflating tourist numbers at the Myrtle Beach Safari.

The "Tiger King" star and Sawyer each face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison if convicted of money laundering, and up to five years for the wildlife trafficking charges. Both were arrested by the FBI earlier this month but have been released on bond.

Arraignments are pending for Bybee, Sammut and Clay, who each face up to five years in federal prison for their charges of involvement in the wildlife trafficking.

The new indictment is not the first time Antle has been charged for wildlife trafficking. A Virginia grand jury indicted him on those charges in October 2020, in addition to nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. Trial on the Virginia charges is set to begin next month.

In May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked the IRS to probe Antle’s nonprofit, the Rare Species Fund, which he claims raises money towards global wildlife conservation efforts. PETA alleges he uses some of the fund’s money to subsidize his safari site in Socastee, just outside Myrtle Beach.

Since he was first fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his zoo in Virginia in 1989, Antle has had more than 35 USDA violations over the years for mistreating animals.

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