LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A Monterey Park man faces charges Wednesday of smuggling three live king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters into the country from Hong Kong.
Rodrigo Franco, 34, was arrested Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was named in a criminal complaint filed on July 21 on one count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States.
Federal authorities say a package sent from Hong Kong was inspected by the customs and border agents who discovered three two-foot king cobras – a protected and highly venomous reptile. The parcel sent through the postal service also contained three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles, according to Department of Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek. The dangerous snakes were seized by federal officials.
Franco also allegedly mailed six protected turtles – desert box, three-toed box, and ornate box turtles – from the United States to Hong Kong. That shipment was also intercepted by Fish and Wildlife agents.
After a controlled delivery of the soft-shelled turtles to Franco’s home, federal agents searched the residence and found a package from Hong Kong in his children’s bedroom, where they say they found a tank containing a live baby Morelet’s crocodile and tanks containing alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle and five diamond back terrapins – all of which protected species.
During the investigation, officials say Franco admitted to previously receiving 20 king cobras in two prior shipments, but all those snakes had died in transit.
Messages from Franco’s phone revealed he and a contact in Asia had discussed shipping turtles and snakes between the United States and Asia, Mrozek said. The messages indicate Franco previously received live cobras from his Asia contact and was going to give five of the snakes to a relative of his contact, according to the complaint.
Franco faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for the smuggling charge.