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Group illegally hunted alligators, deer — and endangered gopher tortoises, wildlife officials say

Gopher tortoises that state wildlife officials say were purchased from James Alexander Smith on June 30. He was one of several people who now face charges for illegally hunting alligators, deer and gopher tortoises, which are a protected species. [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
Gopher tortoises that state wildlife officials say were purchased from James Alexander Smith on June 30. He was one of several people who now face charges for illegally hunting alligators, deer and gopher tortoises, which are a protected species. [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
Published Aug. 12

Three people have been arrested on charges that they illegally hunted alligators, deer and even a protected species, gopher tortoises, state wildlife officials said.

Officials also sent 15 people in Pinellas, Broward, Orange and Levy counties notices to appear in court on related misdemeanor charges, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced on Friday.

"Organized criminal operations like this pose serious environmental and economic consequences," said a statement from Col. Curtis Brown, who leads the commission's law enforcement division. "They damage our precious natural resources and create black markets that undermine the legal process.

"We do our best to put a stop to these crimes, supporting law-abiding business owners, landowners and those who enjoy recreating in Florida."

The commission said it started investigating the case in May 2017. It says the suspects were hunting deer out of season; hunting alligators without licenses or permits; and hunting gopher tortoises, which are listed as a threatened species by the state.

The group even illegally fished for snook, the agency said, even though it had declared that species was catch-and-release only after the Red Tide outbreak from November 2017 to February. That ban was meant to help snook recover.

Here's who was arrested:

• Sherod Strawder, 51, of Clearwater, faces one count of possessing three or more snook; one count of selling a saltwater product without a license; one count of selling snook; one count of possessing more than the bag limit of snook; one count of possessing snook during closed season; one count of harvesting or possessing snook for commercial reasons; and one count of possessing oversize/undersize snook.

Pinellas jail records show Strawder was released from jail this past weekend after posting $3,500 bail.

• James Alexander Smith, 63, whose address was not provided, faces three felony counts of unlawful sale of deer; one misdemeanor count of illegal deer sale; two misdemeanor counts of being in possession of deer during the close season; one felony count of illegal taking or possession of an American alligator; and one count of unlawful sale of an American alligator.

• Aaronnette Jermeshal Shytresa Lee, 28, of Williston, faces one felony charge of being in possession of a short-barreled shotgun.

The investigation is still ongoing and more charges may be filed, the commission said.

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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