BRADENTON — A trapper who staged a phony capture of a 14-foot Burmese python in Manatee County in July is now facing criminal charges.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials arrested 47-year-old Justin Matthews of Bradenton on Wednesday, accusing him of one third-degree felony count of misusing 911 and a second-degree misdemeanor of maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe manner resulting in threats to the public's safety.
On July 25, Matthews, a nuisance-animal trapper, called Tampa Bay area media to a Bradenton neighborhood to witness the capture of a large Burmese python from a drainage pipe. Matthews claimed he was performing a public service by capturing a snake residents had reported seeing for months.
Matthews also claimed the python posed a threat to nearby schoolchildren. In fact, officials say, Matthews had purchased the snake legally from a licensed reptile dealer in Tampa a month earlier. He let the snake go in the drainage pipe and then staged its capture for the media. The story made national headlines.
Questioned by authorities, Matthews admitted to wildlife commission investigator James Manson that he bought and released the snake, staging the event to call attention to irresponsible pet ownership. He was inspired, he told Manson, after a python strangled an infant in Sumter County on July 1. He settled on his plan after watching a show on Animal Planet.
In August, Matthews made a public apology for television cameras near the drainpipe where the fake capture occurred. "It was a mistake,'' Matthews said at the time. "But I didn't put anyone in jeopardy."