LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Two Japanese nationals pleaded not guilty on Monday to conspiring to smuggle more than 50 live turtles and tortoises into the United States by concealing them in snack food boxes found in a suitcase at Los Angeles International Airport.
A March 8 trial date was set for Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, 49, who were arrested Jan. 7 at the airport by agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The men, who are being held without bail, are charged with conspiracy, animal smuggling and wildlife trafficking in a three-count federal indictment issued last Friday. If convicted of all charges, they face a maximum penalty of 26 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
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.
Agents infiltrated the operation in July and purchased 10 protected turtles and tortoises from a person allegedly linked to Yamagami and Ushirozako.
The following month, a man was arrested at Honolulu International Airport carrying 42 turtles and tortoises that were hidden in his checked luggage. Hiroki Uetsuki told investigators that Yamagami had paid him about $1,200 to smuggle the animals into the United States, prosecutors said.
Uetsuki pleaded guilty to a smuggling charge in Hawaii and is expected to be sentenced on Feb. 7 to time served.
“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,” said Erin L. Dean, resident agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement.
“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.”
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