(CN) - The Justice Department announced the guilty plea from the ringleader of rhino-smuggling conspiracy and the arrest tied to narwhal tusk trafficking.
Zhifei Li, the owner of an antique business in China, admitted Thursday in Newark, N.J., that he had organized a conspiracy in which 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million were smuggled from the United States to China.
U.S. District Judge Esther Salas accepted the guilty plea to 11 counts from the 29-year-old resident of Shandong, China.
Investigators had caught wind of Li in November 2011 after a confidential informant sold two raw rhino horns to a middleman at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in an Operation Crash undercover sale.
A Long Island City antiques dealer who was working for Li then bought these government-supplied rhino horns, according to the charges, plea agreement and a joint factual statement.
Li had the raw rhino horns wrapped in duct tape, hidden in porcelain vases, and mislabeled on customs and shipping documents.
A year later, Li had a Dallas-based accomplice buy him a large, 8-pound raw rhino horn in Florida. Li had the dealer cut the horn, worth more than $140,000, into two pieces, wrap them in electrical tape, and send them to Hong Kong in separate packages.
Another rime, Li had a co-conspirator in Long Island City mislabel two raw elephant tusks weighing more than 100 pounds as "automobile parts" on shipping documents.
Li bought approximately 60 carved ivory items from U.S. auction houses since 2011, and had all of the goods, worth roughly $500,000, smuggled to China.
Police arrested Li after he bought two endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a Miami Beach hotel room for $59,000 while attending an antique show.
Li told the undercover agent that he would buy more rhino horns regardless of quality, and would welcome having them shipped directly to Hong Kong.
The factories in China where Li shipped his goods carve the horns into fake antiques known as Zuo Jiu, a Mandarin term for "to make it as old."
Prosecutors hail the case as the latest victory for Operation Crash, a nationwide, multiagency crackdown into illegal rhinoceros trade. The operation takes its name from the term crash given for a herd of rhinoceros.
Some Chinese people believe that drinking from rhinoceros horn "libation" cups with bring good health. The giant, prehistoric beasts are protected by U.S. and international laws. More than 90 percent of wild rhino populations have been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s, because of the price their horns can bring, the Justice Department says.
"South Africa, for example, has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to more than 618 in 2012," prosecutors said in the statement.
The only predator of the rhinoceros is humans. Prosecutors said increasing demand is partly responsible for fueling a thriving black market that includes fake antiques made from recently hunted rhinoceros.
Li's sentencing Wednesday comes on the heels of the jailing of one of his three employees, Qiang "Jeffrey" Wang. One of Li's customers, Shusen Wei, also pleaded guilty earlier this year in Florida to knowingly buying a smuggled rhino carving.
The Li plea requires forfeiture of $3.5 million in ill-gotten gains as well as several Asian artifacts. At sentencing, he faces a 10-year maximum for each smuggling counts and five year for each of the other offenses, as well as a $250,000 fine per count, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.
As the case against Li concludes, federal prosecutors brought new charges against a Canadian man who allegedly laundered money derived from the illegal importation and illegal trafficking of narwhal tusks.
Prosecutors say Gregory Logan was arrested today in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, on an extradition warrant requested by the United States.
A federal grand jury sitting in Bangor, Maine, returned the indictment last month, and it was partially unsealed upon Logan's arrest Thursday.
Prosecutors say Logan, of Grand Prairie in Alberta, earned money from "his illegal imports and sales of narwhal tusks in the United States."
Jay Conrad of Lakeland, Tenn., and Andrew Zarauskas of Union, N.J., allegedly bought the tusks from Logan. They are accused of conspiring to smuggle narwhal tusks and other charges in the same indictment.
Logan is charged with money laundering conspiracy and substantive money laundering violations for allegedly trying to wash his earnings.
If convicted, the defendants each face up to 20 years in prison on each of the most serious charges, as well as fines up to $250,000.
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