On his reality television show, Swamp Brothers, Robbie Keszey wrestled with scores of alligators, crocodiles and venomous reptiles swarming across his Bushnell snake farm.
But Keszey had a secret sideline. He and his business partner, Robroy MacInnes, were smugglers slipping around state, federal and international law. Last week, their smuggling earned each man a federal prison sentence: a year behind bars for Keszey, 18 months for MacInnes.
The pair, who operated Glades Herp Farm east of Brooksville, collected snakes from the wild in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and purchased eastern timber rattlesnakes that had been illegally collected from the wild in violation of New York law. They transported eastern indigo snakes from Florida to Pennsylvania. And they shipped eastern timber rattlesnakes to Florida.
Their crime was not putting snakes on a plane, despite what Samuel L. Jackson might say about that. It was that all those venomous reptiles are legally protected species, yet Keszey and MacInnes were sending them all over the country and even overseas without permits. The timber rattlers, for instance, were destined for collectors in Germany eager to pay $800 per scaly head.
Keszey and MacInnes' crimes came to light "as a result of a state and federal investigation into the illegal reptile and snake trade in New York and Pennsylvania," Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.
On his TV show, Keszey cut quite a dashing figure with his black cowboy hat and cool confidence while handling dangerous critters. His official biography notes that he previously traveled the country as a personal assistant to guitarist C.C. DeVille of the glam metal band Poison — but his real passion has always been Florida's reptiles and amphibians.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've been interested in reptiles and wildlife," Keszey wrote on his website. "I would catch frogs and baby turtles and stuff them into my pockets! I drove my parents crazy!" He started handling snakes when he was 8, he wrote, and "by the time I was 13, I knew it was my passion. It went quickly from a few pet snakes to breeding and collecting."
For the show, Keszey teamed up with his skittish brother Stephen, who had been a bartender in New York City and was more experienced with lounge lizards than real ones. The show depicted him as nervous but eager to learn the ropes at what the website called "Florida's largest reptile sanctuary and exotic reptile dealership."
The website said that Glades Herp Farm also "houses Florida's International Teaching Zoo, which is full of rare species from around the globe and brings in a constant stream of new and different animals each month."
Swamp Brothers began airing in 2011 on the Discovery Channel. Discovery officials did not return a call seeking comment.
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Keszey and MacInnes were indicted by a federal grand jury in Philadelphia in 2012 and convicted last year. At their trial last year, their defense blamed an employee who had avoided charges by cooperating with the government, but the jury voted to convict.
In addition to prison, the pair were sentenced to three years of supervised release. MacInnes was fined $4,000, and Keszey $2,000. They could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
According to federal law enforcement officials, MacInnes told the employee that, if they were caught, what they were doing was no big deal. Judges, used to dealing with murderers and rapists, would consider this a minor offense and any penalty would amount to a slap on the wrist, he reportedly said.
"It's just snakes," MacInnes told his employee.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which includes information from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org.