The Egg Men

Volunteers spend millions of hours trying to rescue sea turtles. So how come so few people care about busting poachers?

Alvin Keel headed out to a desolate stretch of Singer Island beach at 3 a.m. on May 29, 1998, with a plan to make enough money to feed his crack addiction for a week. The moon had set two hours earlier, leaving clear skies as black as the ocean. The ground was spongy under his feet from rainstorms the day before. In his pockets, he had 85 cents, a pencil, and a calculator, perhaps to help him figure out the morning's profit.

Keel, a gray-haired 58-year-old who goes by the name "Popcorn" on the rough streets of Riviera Beach, stumbled upon a mound of sand and began poking it with a broken broom handle. When the stick came up with yolk on the end, he buried his arm to the shoulder and pulled up a handful of eggs the shape of dented Ping-Pong balls. He stuffed them into a sack and repeated the process at another nest. A few steps down the beach, he came upon a loggerhead turtle angling her backside into a freshly dug hole. He patiently waited for her to finish. When the 200-pound turtle laid her last egg, Keel calmly moved her aside to pillage her offspring.

In just a few hours that morning, Keel scored 383 eggs. It was an exceptional day's catch, even for a dealer as experienced as Keel, who's been convicted seven times of poaching. That morning was almost an anniversary: On June 9, 1980, police had first charged him with possession of sea turtle eggs.

Colby Katz
Alvin Keel was sentenced to five years, the longest federal prison term ever for a turtle egg poacher
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office
Alvin Keel was sentenced to five years, the longest federal prison term ever for a turtle egg poacher

Had he stopped to calculate the value of his haul on that morning, Keel would have known it was worth more than $1100 on the streets of Riviera Beach. Most likely, he planned to sell his bounty to middle-aged men who cook them in boiling water for seven minutes, put salt and red pepper on the papery shell, and slurp them down like oysters. Many devotees believe that the slimy eggs are aphrodisiacs and will pay $3 each for them.

But Keel never made a sale. Up on a condominium roof that morning hid a state wildlife officer who was watching the beach through a night-vision telescope. Using an encrypted radio signal in case poachers were listening, he summoned an agent who waited behind a sand dune. They nabbed Keel after he foolishly tried to escape into the ocean.

Six months later, Keel begged U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley to let him off lightly. "I am very sorry I caused all of this," he said. "All of this come about because of my addiction to drugs." The judge was unsympathetic and dealt Keel the harshest sentence allowed by law -- five years in federal prison.

To this day, the sentence stands as the stiffest punishment handed down by a U.S. court to a poacher or dealer of sea turtle eggs. The conviction was a rare victory in the government's attempt to protect eggs from human predators. Otherwise well-orchestrated efforts have virtually ignored poachers, who have stolen an estimated 60,000 eggs in the past two decades.

Numerous problems with the state's effort to curtail poaching have allowed development of a substantial sea turtle egg black market with headquarters in the hard-up town of Riviera Beach. The market has grown because:

There aren't nearly enough state and federal wildlife agents to patrol the beaches effectively.

The predominantly white officers cannot infiltrate the mostly minority markets in which the egg trade thrives.

Poorly worded Florida law requires officers to see poachers destroy an egg before they can charge them with a felony. So, even if they're caught, most face only misdemeanors.

Even if poachers are apprehended and convicted of misdemeanors, state law typically allows for sentences of no more than two months, even for repeat offenders.

The lack of an organized effort to track poaching means officials have no way to determine whether the problem is escalating.

In June, state agents made their first undercover arrest of a sea turtle egg dealer in 21 years, prompting national news coverage and the most talk of the problem in Tallahassee in years. State Sen. Steve Geller, a Hallandale Democrat, is considering sponsoring a bill next spring that would make it a felony to possess more than ten eggs.

Michael Hencken, one of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers who arrested Keel, says victories in court against poachers are too rare. "It's frustrating," Hencken says. "But we have to keep going out there, even though we know most of them get away."

Poachers have told police they intend to keep working despite the possibility of tougher penalties. They know their profits will increase if the eggs become harder to obtain. And they know conservation efforts, which have increased the number of turtle nests in Florida will, ironically, add to their supply.

Gray storm clouds roll in from the west as the man known as "Bo Peep" takes a seat under his carport on an afternoon in July. Broadus Peterkine carries his 6-foot, 3-inch frame imposingly, even though he's so skinny the outline of his skull shows through his cheeks. A mat of gray hair covers his bare chest, above a pair of denim shorts and dirty plastic sandals. As he speaks, he gesticulates wildly with long arms, smacking the back of his right hand into his left palm for emphasis.

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