Cold-Blooded Smuggling

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

In one cage a quintuplet of blue-green rhinoceros iguanas crowd driftwood perches. In another, cougar cubs wrestle like rambunctious children. Seized at Miami International Airport two years ago, the cats arrived here when they still fit in the palm of a hand. South American marmosets, banned as imports, clutch the mesh of their cages like grimacing puppets. Agoutis, stout brown rodents smuggled in for Santeria sacrifice, scurry among dead leaves and ashen sand, the aluminum slats shading their cage weighed down by dead wood and rotting grapefruits.

In one shadowy corner of the overgrown compound hides a long, brown trailer bearing a treasure trove of snakes, lizards, and turtles. It's here that were housed the pancake tortoises and American alligators that started a chain reaction of Florida arrests among the country's busiest reptile-smuggling operations.

Two years ago when Hollywood reptile importer Mike Van Nostrand's slippery creatures were seized, they wound up in the trailer. Some still remain, scattered among the young crocodiles, scaly-skinned caimans, baby tortoises, and Central American boas that crowd containers inside. Others have already been doled out to zoos or universities. Van Nostrand, a self-confessed bigtime smuggler and the biggest legitimate reptile importer on the East Coast before his import license was revoked last year, has lost hundreds of cold-blooded creatures to this place over the years, as have more than a few other Florida importers.

"We've been getting a lot more reptiles," says the big, bearded animal expert and reptile breeder who runs the evidence compound for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service at a secret location about 100 miles north of Miami. Hidden in a rural, middle-class neighborhood, among knobby oaks and lush tangelo trees, the place is a boisterous way station for contraband critters, where living evidence seized in Miami awaits judicial disposition.

Reptiles and amphibians -- "herps" in the lingo of collectors and breeders -- form the backbone of what Interpol estimates is the $6 billion worldwide trade in illegal animals, contraband second only to drugs in estimated value. And among live-animal entry points, Miami ranks number one in the nation -- beating out New York and Los Angeles -- for the volume and variety of live creatures clearing customs (and those sneaking past). Tens of thousands of frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises enter South Florida every year, among them some of the rarest -- and deadliest -- creatures on Earth. Most wind up in the hands of a few big importers and wholesalers, like Van Nostrand's Strictly Reptiles, companies that thrive by feeding the vast hunger for the rare and obscure among the country's herp fanatics (the largest such group in the world).

The lure of fast, easy money inspires many American importers to smuggle in species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty designed to protect wildlife from overexploitation that is enforced in this country by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Importers know there are plenty of wealthy collectors who will shell out big bucks to be the first kid on the block to have an endangered species, people willing to pay more than $10,000 for a plowshare tortoise from Madagascar or an Angolan python. Many of these species, available cheap to smugglers in their native habitats, now teeter on the brink of extinction, and conservationists worry their disappearance might alter the balance in fragile Third World ecosystems. Rarity only makes the creatures more desirable to the handful of wealthy collectors who can afford to own them, and who tend to view reptiles more like rare coins than household pets. No one knows for sure how much damage smuggling has done to native habitats since CITES went into effect in 1973, but importers have generally proven more than willing to ignore such conservation concerns.

"Smugglers are driven by pure greed," says Chip Bepler, a Fish and Wildlife agent who has spent the last five years building cases against Strictly Reptiles and other South Florida reptile importers. "They think there's no real risk involved, that they'll get away with a slap on the wrist if they're caught."

Van Nostrand's company, with annual sales estimated by government sources to exceed $5 million, is still one of the country's largest wholesalers. (He lost only his import license and continues to sell creatures brought in by third-party importers.) Prosecutors contend that, before he was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to half a year in prison and ordered to pay a hefty fine, Van Nostrand dealt in more than 1500 smuggled animals. Many were brought in by freelance smugglers, men like Robert Lawracy and Dwayne Cunningham, a pair of South Florida cruise-ship workers who sold dozens of reptiles to Strictly and face trial later this month in Fort Lauderdale.

Strictly Reptiles, known to breeders, collectors, and retailers to have the largest variety of creatures with as many as 200 different species -- both legal and illegal -- was once a veritable reptile pawnshop. Travelers returning from Brazil, Peru, or Argentina knew they could make a few hundred quick bucks by stuffing some baby snakes in their pockets and a few tiny tortoises in their luggage and unloading the lot at Strictly. (Along with trade restrictions, federal regulations outlaw the importing of tortoises less than four inches long on the grounds that they may carry salmonella). "They didn't pay the most," says Bepler. "But they'd buy whatever you could bring them."

Van Nostrand -- who got out of prison last year, his sentence curtailed by agreeing to sell out associates (including Lawracy and Cunningham) -- refused to speak at length with New Times, though he met briefly with a reporter and shared a few observations before heeding a secretary's advice and deciding to clam up. "I was an arrogant son of a bitch," he said, leaning against a holding pen overflowing with snakes in his sprawling Stirling Road warehouse. "The feds were after me for five years," he continued. "I really thought I was untouchable. And then I got stupid and careless."

South Florida herpers (devoted reptile fanatics like to use the scientific term herpetology to describe both reptiles and amphibians) say Strictly's carelessness, and that of other Florida importers, gives a black eye to the entire reptile community. "The allure is too much for some people," says Mike Brennan, educational chair of the Sawgrass Herpetological Society, a nine-year-old group of Broward herpers that is one of 13 such groups in Florida. "There are two types of people," adds Mike's 19-year-old son, Chris, "those in it for the science and those in it for the money."

Strictly Reptiles is clearly motivated by the bottom line. Mike Van Nostrand says he doesn't even like reptiles, though at any given time his warehouse is crawling with hundreds of them. The company, which built its reputation in the late '80s by muscling in on the trade in live iguanas -- it is known as the "Iguana King" -- has long offered more of the popular lizards than anyone else in the business. The exterior of the company's headquarters is emblazoned with the head of a green iguana, and inside are stored hundreds of iguana babies, shipped in legally by third-party importers from farms in Latin America. "In the '80s if you weren't in iguanas, you weren't anybody," says Rian Gittman, a Deerfield Beach reptile retailer who got his start in importing by learning the trade from the Van Nostrands -- Mike and his father, Ray. Iguanas -- inexpensive, low-maintenance lizards -- have been the most popular reptile pet for more than 15 years. "Ray always told me iguanas are the business, period," says Gittman, who lost his import license in 1995 and wound up serving a year in prison on smuggling charges.

In light of the variety and volume available at Strictly, most everyone in the United States involved in the selling and collecting of reptiles and amphibians has at one time or another done business with the company. Even Strictly's biggest competitors -- importers like Bronx Reptile in New York, L.A. Reptile in California, and, until they shut down in 1997, Tom Crutchfield's Reptile Enterprises near Orlando -- bought from Strictly in order to add rare species to their price lists. "Strictly was always a cut above the rest," says Special Agent Bepler. "A lot of companies offered all of the bread-and-butter animals. Strictly had all that plus a lot of specialty items, like little expensive jewels that might make a pet shop stand out."

The cohesiveness of the reptile trade -- the business is tightly knit on local, national, and even international levels -- masks an inherent, often unspoken, rift. Breeders and hobbyists rarely see eye to eye with the big-money contingent, the importers and wholesalers upon whom they are dependent for new breeding stock. The two groups tolerate each other more out of economic necessity than anything else.

At the monthly reptile show held at the Red Carpet Inn, a low-rise motel on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale, breeders bring their vibrantly hued reptile creations directly to consumers. The best of the bunch spend years perfecting color varieties that might never occur in nature, creating albino strains and bright red varieties of snakes and lizards, as well as the full spectrum of blues, greens, and yellows. "We make designer pets," says Doug Beard, a ponytailed South Miami-Dade breeder who specializes in snakes. "It's like art by God. We perfect mutations that are biologically worthless to meet the public desire to own a piece of nature."

At Red Carpet, Beard occupies one of a dozen tables laid out with reptiles and amphibians proudly advertised as "captive bred." Blue-uniformed Cub Scouts dart among the tables with boyish glee, eyeing $35 bearded geckos, $250 rhino iguanas, and $100 albino pythons. Breeders exchange gossip along with snakes and lizards -- mostly tiny snakes displayed in plastic petri dishes, which may one day grow to six, eight, or twelve feet and become the moms and pops to long lines of serpent babies. Most of the breeders have done business with Mike Van Nostrand -- he buys their surplus offspring and sells them new breeding pairs -- but few have much good to say about the man.

"Van Nostrand's a scumbag," offers one barrel-chested breeder. "If he goes back to jail, that would be an accomplishment."

"We think of them as 'Sickly Reptiles,'" adds a collector, referring to the way the company crams dozens of reptiles one on top of the other in storage bins at its warehouse.

Beard, who has bought and sold from Strictly over the years, offers a less venomous assessment. "They've been responsible for bringing in a tremendous amount of new things that breeders wouldn't otherwise have," he says. "There are a lot of great animals in collections and zoos because of these people."

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.

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.

Mike Van Nostrand has thus far been the biggest South Florida target to fall prey to what those in the reptile trade say has been a marked increase in government scrutiny, but he was not the first local importer to topple. Retired Deerfield Beach importer Rian Gittman was arrested two years before federal agents came knocking on the doors of his mentor's warehouse.

Gittman, an adrenaline junkie and former loan collector from Queens who used his fists to extract money from deadbeats, is now a self-proclaimed "Jesus freak." At a Denny's down the street from Underground Reptiles, his Deerfield shop, he polishes off a slice of chocolate pie while recalling his rapid rise as a reptile importer. He wears a big smile and a maroon T-shirt bearing a silhouette of Jesus Christ with the words CEO JC Sportswear. "It was the early '90s," he recalls. "I sat in Mike and Ray's office and I said, 'Man, Fish and Wildlife will have to smack me right out of the sky, because right now I'm a meteorite.' I wanted to smuggle as many animals as I could, as much as I could. As far as I was concerned, whatever it was I wanted to get it in, I didn't care. I didn't know anybody who had real trouble. I figured if I get caught, what are you going to do -- slap me on the wrist, make me pay a fine? I had no idea what federal court was about."

Gittman, already an amateur snake collector, had moved to South Florida from New York when he was in his early twenties, his departure hastened by a brush with death in which a hired killer stuck a revolver in his mouth and then opted to spare his life. After working a series of odd jobs, he met Mike and Ray Van Nostrand in 1990. Someone had recommended Strictly Reptiles as a good place to unload the snakes he had started collecting from the tall grasses of the Everglades. "The first time I went down there, I sold them some stuff, and they helped me package my first shipment that I sent to another guy," recalls Gittman. Around that same time, Gittman met a wild Australian reptile smuggler named Euan Edwards, a scruffy adventurer with a backpack on his back and no shoes on his feet. Edwards became Gittman's first employee.

Under the tutelage of Mike and Ray Van Nostrand -- for a while Gittman says he rented a bathroom as an office at the Strictly warehouse -- Gittman acquired enough knowledge, of both the legal and illegal trades, to strike out on his own. In 1994 he opened the Reptile Service, his own reptile import business in Deerfield Beach and with Edwards' help began bringing in thousands of snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises. Edwards became Gittman's globetrotter, braving malaria, dysentery, and Third World wars in order to track down suppliers and teach them how to properly pack shipments, both legal and illegal. His duties also included making sure payoffs -- for securing legitimate export permits -- made their way into the hands of the right foreign government officials. "In this country we think of payoffs as illegal," says Gittman. "But in other countries it's just the way they do business. Now you can't have an American guy go pay off a guy, but you give money to an Egyptian and he gives the money to another Egyptian and all of a sudden you've got your permits. That's the live-animal business; that's the way it goes."

Mike Ellard, owner of Burgundy Reptiles in Fort Myers, takes government payoffs one step further. Traveling on his own, he visits countries that are closed to exports under CITES and "lobbies" government officials to allow him to start sending out the first legal shipments of a given species. "You tell them how much you want to take out and that you are not going to be detrimental to the population," says Ellard, adding that many countries are arbitrarily closed to live-animal exports, even when a given species may not be endangered. "Paraguay was closed, and I got the first shipments out last year. The only problem is that, once you open a place up, within six or eight months, everybody's jumped in."

Gittman and Edwards rarely bothered waiting for a country to open up before sending out protected animals. Instead they devised ingenious new ways to get contraband reptiles past customs, including constructing false bottoms in crates of legitimate shipments and, over the course of a year's worth of mislabeled shipments, bringing in many times their quota of legal animals. (Many legal species, including iguanas, have annual import caps.) One year, for instance, Gittman brought in almost 200,000 baby iguanas -- they come in bags of 100 -- exceeding his 40,000 cap almost five times and in the process undercutting competitors who comply with shipping restrictions.

Along with smuggling, Gittman, who had invested in an iguana farm in El Salvador, discovered another, less dangerous means of increasing his profit margins: naming his own species. "I was getting in these blue iguanas," he recalls. "I changed the name. Instead of iguanas, I called them Blue Jewels, and I charged $2 more for each iguana. It worked. Every once in a while, we'd get a batch of iguanas that were electric blue because maybe the breeder fed them different food or something, and so we'd call them Electric Blue and sell them for $20 each."

In the end none of those schemes really mattered. "Rule number one on the street is you can't beat the government," says Gittman of the federal investigation that led to his downfall. "You can't win. They have too much money; they print it."

In 1995 Gittman was charged with smuggling American alligators across state lines and bringing in East African pancake tortoises hidden in false bottoms in legal shipments. "Prosecutors were out for blood," says Gittman of the ten-year sentence they tried to stick him with. "I mean it was just animals." He got a year in jail and, not faring as well as his old friend Mike Van Nostrand, lost his import business altogether.

Today Gittman is strictly legal, doing brisk business handing out Bibles while hawking all sorts of herps in clean, well-lit cages at his retail stores in Deerfield and Coral Springs. "I'm a sold-out Jesus Freak now," he says. "I'm not interested in anything else, I don't have anything else I live for. I wake up in the morning and ask God what he has planned for me."

Mike Van Nostrand, on the other hand -- out of prison and working long hours to recoup his losses -- is still dealing in enormous quantities of live reptiles and amphibians, both imported and captive-bred. As a show of good faith, he helped the government put together a sting not long ago that nabbed a 22-year-old Slovenian trying to get his start as a tortoise smuggler by bringing in, stuffed in socks, 49 baby Hermann's tortoises from Eastern Europe and offering them to Strictly. The smuggler went to jail, Van Nostrand got his home confinement reduced, and the tortoises were banished north, to the Fish and Wildlife evidence compound.

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
Jay_Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com

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