NEW PORT RICHEY — The suspect arranged to meet at a Hess gas station at Little Road and State Road 54. He wanted someplace public.
It was 6 p.m. Wednesday, in the middle of a downpour. Lt. Steve De Lacure, an investigator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was undercover in jeans, a Carhartt T-shirt and a baseball cap. Two days earlier he got a tip that someone was selling pythons illegally on Craigslist. He contacted the seller, negotiated and agreed that he would buy four snakes — one large reticulated python and four baby albino Burmese pythons — for $850.
Owners and sellers of these snakes, which are listed as "reptiles of concern," have to be licensed by law.
This one wasn't.
De Lacure got out of his car to meet the seller and, when he saw him, he thought his cover was blown. It was Bradley Scott Dean, 21, of New Port Richey whom De Lacure had given a warning to in 2007, when Dean and his girlfriend, Izabela Borczyk, now 20, were trying to sell sugar gliders without a license. According to De Lacure, the couple only had a few of the nocturnal marsupials, which were in good health. De Lacure said Dean and Borczyk told him they didn't know they needed a license to sell them. De Lacure let them go with a strict warning.
Now, here was Dean. Again.
De Lacure was sure Dean would recognize him, but he didn't. Dean had the snakes in containers in the back of his mother's Acura, De Lacure said. The undercover officer inspected the snakes — and one of the small Burmese pythons bit him on his left palm. It hurt, but wasn't serious.
De Lacure told Dean he was ready to pay and reached into his back pocket for his wallet — but instead brought out his badge and handcuffed Dean. They stood under a car wash to get out of the rain and talked. De Lacure said Dean was cooperative and calm. Dean said he had eight more snakes at his parents' house on Haven Drive in New Port Richey, where he lives with them. De Lacure went there that night to seize the snakes — also Burmese and reticulated pythons — which were in good health, he said. They were in a locked enclosed porch, in locked cages.
Borczyk, who lives in Trinity, and Dean were taken to the New Port Richey Police Department for questioning. Borczyk said she communicated with potential customers online, De Lacure said.
Dean faces misdemeanor charges for not having licenses to own or sell reptiles of concern and failing to microchip the snakes. Borczyk may face accomplice charges, pending a determination by the State Attorney's Office.
"He's a smaller fish," De Lacure said of Dean, "but this kind of act is going on in this state and every other state in the country."
Dean might face more charges if he bought the snakes illegally, De Lacure said.
Burmese pythons can get to be 26 feet in length and more than 200 pounds. De Lacure said the only predator a full grown python might face in the wild would be "an alligator or a human with a shotgun."
When asked why licensing is important, De Lacure referenced the 8 1/2-foot-long albino Burmese python that killed 2-year-old Shaiunna Rose Hare in her crib on July 1 in Sumter County. The family's python was not licensed. De Lacure said it had a history of escaping and it was extremely malnourished.
The toddler's mother, Jaren Hare, and her live-in boyfriend, Charles Darnell, were arrested Monday on charges of third-degree murder, manslaughter and child abuse.
If they had been licensed, they would have had inspections by Fish and Wildlife, De Lacure said. If an owner isn't properly securing or taking care of the animal, actions — such as seizing it — are immediately taken, he said.
"There is a public safety issue with this," he said.
Licenses to own a reptile of concern are $100 per year. The license to sell one is $50.
Dean's 12 snakes are being held at Mr. WeeBee's Pet World in New Port Richey. Dean told De Lacure he's going to apply for a license so he can get them back. He's agreed to come to the store to clean the snakes' cages and feed them.
Dan Dattilo lives next to Dean and said the family moved into the house two months ago. He had no idea there were a dozen pythons inside.
"That's nuts," he said. "It's pretty scary."
Dean told De Lacure he hadn't sold any snakes before the undercover buy. But Dean told Bay News 9, the Times' coverage partner, that he's been illegally selling snakes so he can help his family pay their rent and utilities. He said no one in his family has a job right now.
"We can't even pay our bills," he said.
Dean said he meant to get his license, but any money he made went to paying what bills he could.
When asked why he decided to sell the albino Burmese pythons, Dean said he liked their colors.
"And how big they can get," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.