Cold-Blooded Smuggling

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

A full decade before Mike Van Nostrand went to jail, his father, Ray, had been in the less enviable position of being the little fish ratting out the big fish, in this case a brutal drug trafficker named Mario Tabraue, who was believed to have dismembered both his ex-wife and a federal informant. Ray, far more of a reptile aficionado than his oldest son -- he got his start in the reptile business working at a pet shop near the Bronx Zoo in the '60s -- spent much of the '80s managing the reptile portion of Zoological Imports in Miami, Tabraue's exotic-animal import business. The company, largely a front for marijuana and cocaine trafficking, brought in enormous quantities of drugs, along with a zoo's worth of wild creatures, including monkeys, tigers, and giraffes. When FBI agents shut down Tabraue's operation in 1987, concluding an investigation dubbed "Operation Cobra," Van Nostrand helped the government build the case against his boss. Tabraue got 100 years. Van Nostrand got one.

This was neither the first nor the last time the drug trade and the wildlife business have crossed paths. A study conducted five years ago by the Endangered Species Project, a San Francisco nonprofit, found that more than two-thirds of the cocaine seized in 1993 involved wildlife imports. That same year Miami customs inspectors, concluding "Operation Cocaine Constrictor," nabbed a shipment of 305 boa constrictors with unusually large bulges in their bellies. The snakes, it was discovered, had had cocaine-filled condoms stuffed up their rectums. Only 63 survived.

"The source countries for a lot of endangered species are often the same as for drugs," explains Sam LaBudde, one of the authors of the 1994 Endangered Species Project report. "There is a logistical reason why drugs and animals are lumped together. It's very easy to get wildlife products into the country. If you're shipping something that says it's full of snakes it's easy to put in a false bottom filled with cocaine. We found there was a 5 percent chance of wildlife being inspected by customs, and if you are shipping drugs and rare animals together, you're making money on both ends."

While Ray was in prison, 21-year-old Mike Van Nostrand, intent on putting his father's import connections to good use, started Strictly Reptiles in a small storefront in Davie. The ambitious young heir to his father's reptile business turned out to be a shrewd entrepreneur with a good head for business, and the company quickly flourished. What part smuggling paid in Van Nostrand's success is unclear, but prosecutors say it was substantial. "The illegal trade tends to be the most lucrative," says Tom Watts-Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who worked the younger Van Nostrand's case. "The profit margins are far greater."

In the decade Van Nostrand spent building Strictly Reptiles into one of the largest import and wholesale operations in the country, he bought reptiles from more than a dozen people later charged with smuggling, among them a number of individuals also connected to the second largest importer in Florida, Tom Crutchfield of Bushnell. Prosecutors say Crutchfield, who pled guilty to a long list of smuggling charges early last month, after being expelled from the Central American country of Belize, isn't likely to get off as easily as Van Nostrand. The importer was convicted of reptile smuggling in 1992 for bringing in endangered Fiji banded iguanas and added evasion to the latest round of charges when he fled the country in the spring of 1997. Prior to going to work for Norwegian Cruise Lines, accused smuggler Dwayne Cunningham was a manager at Crutchfield's reptile business. According to court documents between 1992 and 1996, Cunningham, working with former San Diego pet shop owner Robert Lawracy and a pair of German reptile-smugglers from Frankfurt, sold contraband animals -- more than 200 tortoises, three dozen iguanas, and 75 boa constrictors -- to both Crutchfield and Van Nostrand. Many of those animals wound up for sale at Van Nostrand's booth at the 1995 International Reptile Expo, the largest reptile show in the world, held every August in Orlando.

Also implicated in the Crutchfield case is a man Fish and Wildlife claims is the world's biggest dealer in endangered animals, a Malaysian businessman named Anson Wong, who had evaded U.S. law enforcement for years by, government sources say, operating with the tacit approval of the Malaysian government and avoiding countries with extradition treaties with the United States. Wong, one of the principal targets in a four-year government sting dubbed "Operation Chameleon," was picked up last September in Mexico City and transported to San Francisco to stand trial, charged with smuggling -- in large legal shipments and by using Federal Express -- more than 300 illegal animals valued at nearly half a million dollars.

Fish and Wildlife agents nailed the wily smuggler -- he had eluded them for almost six years -- by setting up a phony wildlife business near San Francisco called PacRim Enterprises, which was purportedly interested in purchasing three of the world's most endangered creatures: Komodo dragons from Indonesia, plowshare tortoises from Madagascar (allegedly stolen from a breeding project on the island), and tuataras (lizardlike animals) from New Zealand. These rare animals have an estimated black-market value as high as $30,000 apiece. Wong was arrested after he flew to Mexico City for a meeting with agents posing as PacRim representatives. Although Van Nostrand was never charged in connection with Wong's illegal activities, government sources say the two had done business together over the years.

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