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DHS: Turtles Found In LAX Luggage On Endangered List

Travelers also found with $16,000 in cash
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(credit: Customs And Border Patrol)

(credit: Customs And Border Patrol)

LOS ANGELES (CBS) — When dozens of live turtles and tortoises were uncovered at LAX this week, customs agents were likely surprised at the massive find.

But Erin Vespe, acting director of the field office for the US Dept of Homeland Security tells KFWB’s Maggie McKay officials still have no idea what the men planned to do with all those tortoises.

Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, 49, were arrested Friday at Los Angeles International Airport by agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

They were charged with illegally importing wildlife into the United States, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. They were also charged with a misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Both were being held without bail and were scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 31.

An investigation — dubbed Operation Flying Turtle — began about a year ago when agents learned about a smuggling operation bringing turtles into the country, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In July, agents infiltrated the operation and purchased 10 protected turtles and tortoises from a person linked to Yamagami and Ushirozako, prosecutors said.

In August, an associate of the two men was arrested at Honolulu International Airport carrying 42 turtles and tortoises that were hidden in his checked luggage, according to prosecutors. He told investigators that Yamagami had paid him about $1,200 to smuggle the animals into the United States, prosecutors said.

The man, Hiroki Uetsuki, pleaded guilty to a smuggling charge in Hawaii and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 7.

“Individuals who engage in the smuggling of protected species are unscrupulous law violators who are motivated solely by profit and status, and clearly have no respect for our ecosystem,” Erin L. Dean, resident agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, said.

“Individuals who participate in the illegal take and trade of protected animals are irreparably harming natural populations and, sadly, contributing to the decline of many types of fragile and delicate species worldwide,” Dean said.

(©2010 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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