SAN DIEGO (CN) — Opening arguments Monday in the criminal trial of a woman accused of smuggling 250 pounds of rare and endangered sea creatures into the United States from Mexico raised questions about what she knew about her boyfriend’s seafood business.
The federal prosecutor told jurors that Wei Wei Wang had stuffed her pink suitcase so full of sea cucumbers and black abalone that border guards could smell it, and it took several of them just to lift it out of her Toyota minivan.
“This fishy situation just got smelly,” Deputy U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona said in U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino’s courtroom.
Black abalone is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and sea cucumbers are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Wang is accused of having 83 pounds of black abalone and 172 pounds of sea cucumbers.
The Border Patrol sent Wang to secondary inspection, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers weighed the seafood. Inspectors tried to throw the trash bags full of fresh, frozen and dried seafood over their shoulders, “like Santa Claus,” Orabona said, but it was too heavy to carry.
Wang, a Taiwanese woman who was living in Tijuana when she was arrested, is charged with conspiracy, unlawful importation of wildlife, smuggling and importing merchandise illegally. Her boyfriend, Alan Ren, pleaded guilty in September last year to conspiring to smuggle the wildlife. Prosecutors said he agreed to pay $16,600 to the Mexican government as restitution. Ren owns two Chinese restaurants in New York.
Wang is accused of working with him to smuggle the protected species, which are considered delicacies in many Asian cuisines, to sell in the United States.
A businesswoman in Los Angeles had written Ren a check for $11,000 to buy the seafood, Orabona said, and had called her and Ren multiple times as they were crossing the border.
Overfishing has devastated sea life in the Gulf of California, where old-time shrimpers, for example, say that young shrimpers are netting baby shrimp, killing not only shrimp but a way of life. Protected and endangered fish, such as the totoaba, or drum, was once abundant in the Gulf of California but now are extremely rare — and still a target of illegal fishermen.
Neither Wang nor Ren had permits, licenses or paperwork to import what Orabona called “commercial-size amounts” of the protected species. He said a handwritten ledger tracking Wang’s and Ren’s seafood transactions was found in Wang’s purse.
The prosecutor said Wang got involved in her boyfriend’s business because she speaks Spanish and helped conduct business deals.
But Wang’s attorney Timothy Garrison told jurors Wang didn’t know her boyfriend’s seafood business was illegal.
“Ren wanted to bring in these species, loaded up his van, picked up his girlfriend and headed to the border,” Garrison said.
He said Ren was the one “making moves,” calling customers and suppliers and getting checks written out to him.
“The only thing she’s guilty of is having this scheming snake as her boyfriend,” Garrison said.
The trial is expected to continue through next week. If convicted, Wang could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.