TULSA, Okla. (CN) – A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to transport and sell over 1,000 protected and rare box turtles from Oklahoma as part of a syndicate that moved the animals between the United States and China, federal prosecutors in Tulsa said.
William T. Gangemi, 26, of Freehold, New Jersey, admitted to transporting the illegally collected Three-toed and Western box turtles from Oklahoma to New Jersey in 2017 and 2018 in violation of the Lacey Act.
North American box turtles are particularly popular in east and southeast Asia, where then can sell for as much as $900 each as exotic additions to home ponds and gardens. They are not listed as endangered but are considered threatened by conservation groups.
Under his plea agreement, Gangemi will pay $250,000 in restitution to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and $100,000 in fines to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 27, 2020.
“Box turtles reach sexual maturity at approximately 10 years of age and have a high nest and juvenile mortality rate,” prosecutors said in a written statement. “Due to these factors, the harvest of the turtles can have highly detrimental effects on populations.”
When smuggled abroad, the turtles are often disguised in clothing or packaging to avoid detection by customs officials. This means they are often shipped without food and water, resulting in deaths that critics deem as cruel and inhumane.
It is a felony under the federal Lacey Act to sell or buy protected wildlife with a market value of over $350 knowing that the wildlife was taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of laws or state regulations.
The smuggling of either type of box turtle is also a violation of Oklahoma state law.
Gangemi is currently serving a six-month home confinement sentence in a separate federal case alleging illegal smuggling in South Carolina. U.S. District Judge Anderson in Columbia sentenced Gangemi in June, only allowing him to go to work at his family wildlife business or to church.