To catch a ring of poachers who targeted Florida's million-dollar alligator farming industry, state wildlife officers created the ultimate undercover operation.
They set up their own alligator farm, complete with plenty of real, live alligators, watched over by real, live undercover wildlife officers. It also had hidden video cameras to record everything that happened.
After two years of undercover work, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Wednesday that it arrested nine people on 44 felony charges. They're accused of breaking wildlife laws governing alligator harvesting, transporting eggs and hatchlings across state lines, dealing in stolen property, falsifying records, racketeering and conspiracy.
The conspiracy charges alone could lead to lengthy prison sentences. It's unusual to see conspiracy charges in a wildlife case, said statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, but there's a reason that statute was invoked for this case.
"The message is, poaching alligators, poaching eggs — we're done with it," Cox said.
Alligators are not just university mascots in Florida — they're also big business. The state boasts 90 commercial alligator farms where the owners cultivate gator eggs and grow their stock to maturity for sale, just like farmers do with chickens and beef cattle.
Of course, as Allen Register, the proprietor of one of the state's oldest alligator farms, Gatorama, noted on his company web site, there are differences: "Our livestock just doesn't herd well."
The market for gator hides and gator meat is, in a word, volatile. It depends to some extent on the European fashion appetite for alligator skin.
That means profit margins can be thin. Still, in 2016, alligator farmers were paid an average of $50 per alligator egg, which means one gator nest would be worth about $2,000, according to the wildlife commission.
The state licenses all the alligator farmers. State rules say that whenever a farmer goes out to collect alligator eggs — usually in an airboat — from nests they marked in advance they must be accompanied by a wildlife biologist and pay a fee to the state. The farms are also required to keep strict inventory records.
But in recent years, state wildlife officers heard reports "indicating substantial numbers of illegally taken wild alligators and eggs are being removed from the wild and laundered through certain alligator farms," Lt. George Wilson wrote in the arrest reports released Wednesday.
Legitimate farms became victims. Register said that in 2015, when the price of alligator eggs skyrocketed, someone stole 1,100 eggs from a nest he had marked. They were valued at $60 an egg, which means he lost $66,000.
"I took a huge financial hit from that," said Register, who has been in the gator farming business in Palmdale for 28 years.
So in 2013, the wildlife commission launched an investigation. Two years later they set up the Sunshine Alligator Farm in Arcadia. The operation looked as legitimate as any other alligator farm — only it was staffed by undercover officers.
Wilson described the undercover operation in the wildlife commission's arrest reports:
"Land was leased, licenses obtained, infrastructure built to create a fully functioning alligator farm. Alligator stock was legally purchased from other alligator farmers to build the business and facilitate business contacts. Alligators were raised, grown and sold in the facility. Industry meetings were attended to be a fully functioning alligator farm.
"The alligator farm established business credibility for the (undercover) officers to infiltrate the criminal element."
The officers put out the word that they were willing to buy illegally harvested alligator eggs, and soon had plenty. They documented more than 10,000 illegally harvested eggs, the wildlife commission said, often labeled as being bought from the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Those kinds of numbers are mind-boggling to legitimate alligator farmers, Register said. The only farm that would buy that many, he said, would be one staffed by undercover cops.
"Those guys (who were arrested) were pretty stupid to think otherwise," Register said.
In addition to swiping the eggs, the prosecutor said the poachers also falsified records, cheating the state out of fees that alligator farmers normally pay. That meant they were robbing the state's taxpayers and hurting the environment at the same time.
On top of all that, a 41-year-old Arcadia man arrested Wednesday also faces charges for a crime wildlife officials said occurred during a cookout with the undercover officers. They said he shot and killed a white ibis, a protected species in Florida, then cleaned it and tossed the meat on the grill to cook.
The nine arrested were all men ages 22 to 73, and they all hailed from Arcadia, Cape Coral, Fort Denaud and Punta Gorda. They faces charges such as: unlawful possession of alligator eggs, unlawful possession of alligators, conspiracy to commit racketeering, uttering a forged instrument, conspiracy to commit dealing in stolen property, scheme to defraud and racketeering. One of the men faces 17 felony charges.
Wildlife officials said the investigation is continuing. If there are more alligator poachers out there, Register said he hopes they are arrested as well:
"I hope this scares the heebie-jeebies out of every one of them."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.