Cold-Blooded Smuggling

The recent bust of a Hollywood importer sheds light on an illegal reptile trade that has adventurous smugglers making easy money

However breeders view importers like Strictly, the two groups are intrinsically at odds on a purely economic level. Breeders depend on the rarity of a foreign country's native stock to drive up the prices of their captive-born offspring, while importers depend on the availability (legal or otherwise) of foreign-born animals. Under CITES, Australia, for instance, has long been closed to all wildlife exports, rare and common alike, which benefits breeders by driving prices through the roof for captive-bred species tracing their lineage to an Australian born great-grandparent. Smuggling, or a change in import-export regulations (which are constantly evolving), can alter price structures dramatically, enriching smugglers -- they buy cheap from impoverished natives -- while driving breeders out of business.

"Importers screw with breeders," says Ron St. Pierre, a well-known Loxahatchee breeder of snakes and lizards, who has perfected a bright red boa mutation he calls a blood boa. "I was breeding rhino iguanas, which are endangered and really rare, and people started smuggling them in. And all of a sudden they are all over the place and they are selling them for a third of what I'm producing them for."

It was one such attempt to dominate the market in a single species in 1997 that led to Strictly's downfall. Special Agent Bepler began investigating the company more than five years ago, after its name kept coming up when reptile-toting travelers were arrested at Miami International Airport. Though the amateur smugglers told investigators they intended to unload their animals at Strictly, there was never any evidence tying them directly to the company.

Among those arrested as Strictly suppliers was Thomas Hough, a missionary from Peru caught at the airport in February 1995 with a suitcase full of live snakes -- 13 red-tailed boas and a green anaconda he had collected in the Amazon rain forest where he worked with the Shipibo Indians. Hough told investigators he had sold reptiles to Strictly in the past and knew of other missionaries who had smuggled snakes out of Peru. Other smugglers with suspected connections to Strictly included Mauricio Coronel, an Argentine spider-expert caught in 1993 toting $25,000 worth of snakes, spiders, frogs, and tortoises; and Manuel Frade, arrested coming off a flight from Venezuela in 1994 when inspectors noticed the jeans in his suitcase were squirming -- he had stuffed 14 young boas inside his pant legs. "Mike would take everything," says Bepler. "He was known as a guy who would pay clean, take big loads, and not ask any questions. He would take everything so you wouldn't give it to somebody else. He dominated the field by having what no one else had."

Bepler says a lot of obviously smuggled species wound up on Strictly's price list. "I'd get competitors calling me up and saying, 'How the hell did he get hold of that,'" he says. "When I'd ask Mike about the animals, he would just look me in the eye, and I would kind of feel like he was laughing at me. He'd been getting away with smuggling for so long that he believed nothing could ever happen to him. Unfortunately once the animal's in the country, it's nearly impossible to prove where it came from."

The break Bepler had been waiting for came in late 1995, when Dutch police investigating reptile smuggling through the Netherlands notified the U.S. Department of Justice that they had wiretapped conversations involving an American reptile importer named Michael Van Nostrand. The intercepted phone calls revealed a complex multinational plot to launder through Europe frilled dragons from Indonesia, lizards that, when threatened, flare the enormous frilled flap around their heads Jurassic Park-style. (The lizard was in fact used as the model for the spitting dinosaur featured in Steven Spielberg's movie). At the time the creatures, captive-bred in limited numbers, were selling for as much as $800 apiece. (They now sell for less than half that price.) The plot involved a company named Hasco, a Strictly supplier that is one of the largest exporters in Southeast Asia. Hasco would ship the lizards to middlemen in the Netherlands who would relabel the shipments as captive-bred in Europe and then forward them to Van Nostrand in Florida. Court documents accuse him of designing the plot in order to corner the market in frilled dragons.

After a two-year investigation spurred by the Dutch tip, Van Nostrand pleaded guilty in October 1997 to reptile-smuggling charges and was ordered to spend eight months in prison and to pay nearly $250,000 to the World Wildlife Fund for preservation efforts in the Lorentz Nature Reserve on Irian Jaya, home to the Indonesian frilled dragon. He avoided harsher penalties by following the example of his father, an ex-con and former federal witness who helped put one of Miami's biggest drug traffickers away in the late '80s. The junior Van Nostrand, in this case the big fish, saved himself by helping federal prosecutors build cases against a string of low-level smuggling associates -- men like Dwayne Cunningham of Pembroke Pines and Robert Lawracy of West Palm Beach. The pair of cruise-ship workers -- Lawracy was a dive master, Cunningham an onboard entertainer -- face trial later this month on charges they smuggled Caribbean reptiles, including red-footed tortoises stolen from a zoo on the island of Curaçao and prized Exuma Island rock iguanas snatched from their Bahamas habitat with noose poles, for sale to Van Nostrand and Central Florida importer Tom Crutchfield.

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