(CN) – The owner of a South Florida auction house was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for his role in the smuggling of rhinoceros horns, elephant ivory and protected coral.
Christopher Hayes, president and owner of Elite Estate Buyers Inc. of Boynton Beach, Florida, was also ordered to pay a $1.5 million criminal fine, and his company was banned from trading in any wildlife-related items for a period of five years.
Hayes pleaded guilty to trafficking in the items, which were bound for China, in the Miami, Florida Federal Court in January.
According to court documents filed at the time, Hayes admitted to being part of a felony conspiracy in which his company helped smugglers traffic in endangered and protected species in interstate and foreign commerce and falsified records and shipping documents to avoid the scrutiny of federal regulators.
Prosecutors said Hayes aided foreign buyers by directing them to third-party shippers who were willing to send the wildlife out of the country with false paperwork.
The charges were brought after Hayes purchased endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The government says Hayes sold six endangered black rhino horns. Two of the horns were sold for $80,500 to Ning Qiu, a Texas resident involved in smuggling the horns to China.
Qiu pleaded guilty to being part of a broader conspiracy to smuggle rhinoceros horns and items made from rhinoceros horns to Zhifei Li — the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that smuggled an estimated $4.5 million in rhino and elephant products from the United States to China.
Qiu was sentenced to 25 months in prison on May 14, 2015; Li was sentenced in to 70 months in prison in June 2014.
Hayes also admitted to selling items made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral to the President of an antiques business in Canada, who they then directed to a local shipper that agreed to mail the items in Canada without required permits.
That individual, Xiao Ju Guan, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on March 25, 2015 in New York.
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