Justin Matthews insists his motivation was noble. He acknowledges his method was snaky.
The highly publicized capture of a 14-foot Burmese python in a Manatee County drainpipe last month was faked, the trapper admitted. Now he's dealing with possible aftermath from state wildlife officials, local authorities and his "fans."
Matthews, the cowboy hat-wearing proprietor of an animal care and educational company and a would-be Animal Planet personality, made the admission Wednesday when confronted by state investigator James Manson.
"I did it for wildlife education," Matthews said Thursday. "I did it to bring more awareness to the problem of Burmese pythons in the state of Florida. And it worked. It got a lot of publicity, and I have four more snakes and an iguana."
Matthews made a public apology for television cameras near the drainpipe where he first stashed, then needed help recovering, Sweetie on July 25.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began investigating when it received "several tips from the reptile industry" that Matthews' adventure "might not have been what it was reported to be," said commission spokesman Gary Morse.
Matthews said he bought the snake legally for $200 from Southeast Reptile Exchange in Tampa with the intent to use it for his educational presentations. He was inspired to stage a media spectacle after a python strangled an infant in Sumter County on July 1, he said. His twofold goal, he said: show ill-equipped snake owners that there were shelters that could take them; and discourage illegal wild releases. He settled on his method after watching a show on Animal Planet.
So Matthews placed Sweetie in a concrete pipe an open field away from a supermarket and a day care center, then staged its capture.
"It was a mistake,'' Matthews conceded. "But I didn't put anyone in jeopardy."
Matthews said he didn't consider the stunt risky. He said the snake had no chance of eluding him, but admitted he was prepared to kill it if necessary.
A large crowd and media gathered as Matthews staged the battle with the help of four firefighters — who did not know of the deception — and his son, Brandon. Matthews said he made no money from the free publicity — "it cost me money," he said — and offered to compensate the local fire department for its time.
Matthews could be charged with failing to microchip the animal, as required by state law, Morse said. Although the matter remains under investigation, it is unclear whether any laws were broken.
Joe Fauci, who owns the shop where Matthews bought the snake, said he is furious.
"A lot of people saw this guy on TV saying it could eat a 7-year-old," Fauci said Thursday. "It really hurts the whole situation."
Fauci said he started getting a fishy feeling about Matthews shortly after he sold him the snake on June 26. Fauci said that just a few weeks later, Matthews told Fauci he had to kill it after it bit his brother on the leg.
Then, a few weeks later, Fauci saw Matthews on television, apparently capturing a snake.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out," Fauci said.
Fauci, who said he's been around pythons since he was 13, said snake hysteria is overblown and being stoked by overzealous politicians and bogus population estimates.
"If they were all over, why'd he have to stage it?" he said. "This whole thing is just disgusting."