Sunday, July 15, 2018
News Roundup

To catch a poacher: Florida wildlife officers set up undercover gator farm sting

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.

     
         
Comments
For starters: Rays at Twins, ready for a break

For starters: Rays at Twins, ready for a break

The Rays play their final game before the All-Star break today, looking to pick up their 50th win of the season.RHP Ryne Stanek will be on the mound as the opener, with a fresh arm added to the bullpen in LHP Hoby Milner, who was acquired in trade Sa...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays shuffle bullpen, acquire Hoby Milner, send down Chih-Wei Hu

Rays shuffle bullpen, acquire Hoby Milner, send down Chih-Wei Hu

The Rays went outside the the organization to add a fresh arm to the bullpen, acquiring LHP Hoby Milner from the Phillies on Saturday night for cash considerations.The Rays sent down RHP Chih-Wei Hu to make room on the 25-man roster and designated fo...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Sacha Baron Cohen still knows how to punk America, but his new show erodes what little trust we have left

Sacha Baron Cohen still knows how to punk America, but his new show erodes what little trust we have left

Sacha Baron Cohenís return to incognito trickery is, in current conditions, a little like pouring rubbing alcohol into the nationís open wounds.Employing the same ingenious commitment and subterfuge that made him famous in the guise of Ali G., Borat ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rays journal: Wilson Ramos will miss All-Star Game

Rays journal: Wilson Ramos will miss All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS — C Wilson Ramos had been so looking forward to starting Tuesday's All-Star Game in Washington, where he played seven seasons and, depending on the latest rumor, could be returning via trade.But he lost that opportunity Saturday, wi...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Raysí Blake Snell: This is how a Star is born

Raysí Blake Snell: This is how a Star is born

MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Snell didn't know where he was headed at this time last year.Having made a couple of unimpressive starts after rejoining the Rays following a six-week demotion to Triple A he earned with a brutal beginning to what was suppos...
Published: 07/14/18
Rays roar back to blast Twins 19-6

Rays roar back to blast Twins 19-6

MINNEAPOLIS – There was a time late Saturday afternoon when things actually looked bad for the Rays in what turned out to be a very good day, a 19-6 victory that ensured a winning record at the All-Star break.Tampa Bay had given back an early l...
Published: 07/14/18
Marc Topkinís takeaways from Saturdayís Rays-Twins game

Marc Topkinís takeaways from Saturdayís Rays-Twins game

As offensively challenged as the Rays have been much of this season, Saturday was the fifth time in their past 11 games they have scored eight or more runs. The reality check: All against the Marlins, Mets, Tigers and Twins.OF Carlos Gomez hasn't had...
Published: 07/14/18
UPDATE: Rays C Wilson Ramos out of All-Star Game due to hamstring injury

UPDATE: Rays C Wilson Ramos out of All-Star Game due to hamstring injury

UPDATE. 6:45: Ramos said he will not be able to play in the All-Star Game and will be removed from the active roster but still plans to attend and take part in the festivities.He also said he "probably" will end up on the DL, which will cause the Ray...
Published: 07/14/18
A Florida corrections officer is accused of having sex with a woman on probation whom he oversaw

A Florida corrections officer is accused of having sex with a woman on probation whom he oversaw

A probation officer with the Florida Department of Corrections who was working out of Tarpon Springs has been arrested on a charge that he had a sexual relationship with a woman whose probation he was overseeing. Jeffrey Thomas Desimone, 40, was arr...
Published: 07/14/18
 Endangered sea turtle found dead on Gulf shore with a beach chair around its neck

Endangered sea turtle found dead on Gulf shore with a beach chair around its neck

Early Saturday morning, beachgoers found a dead sea turtle on the shore of an Alabama beach.The Fort Morgan Share the Beach Facebook page posted that the Kempís Ridley turtle had been strangled by a chair. The group suspects that the chair had been i...
Published: 07/14/18