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The state's conservation commission brass was informed of the severity of the poaching problem in May 2001, when then-Lt. Jeff Ardelean wrote an intelligence bulletin. The report documented the past 20 years of poaching in the practice's hottest area: Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie counties. Ardelean, now a West Palm Beach-based captain with the commission, compiled a list of 45 arrests and five other discoveries of plundered nests. The report makes a "conservative" estimate that 60,000 eggs have been stolen in the past two decades. "I had a lot of nonbelievers [among supervisors] who didn't believe people were really selling sea turtle eggs," Ardelean says.
Although state law allows judges to send poachers to jail for a year if caught molesting a nest, it's rare for officers to actually catch them with their hands in the sand. Only one of the poachers on Ardelean's list convicted in state court spent more than 60 days in jail, according to a New Times search of court records and newspaper reports. Three-time convicted poacher Timmy Carter, age 53, whom wildlife officers found carrying a bag of 223 turtle eggs in June 1998, was sentenced to a year by a judge who hoped to send a message.
Many other poachers served their sentences while completing jail terms on more serious charges, in effect negating the poaching penalties. Phillip Herndon, caught with a pillowcase full of loggerhead turtle eggs on Singer Island last year, served his two months in jail for poaching concurrent with six months for beating a woman with a shovel. Barry Hayes, a West Palm Beach man found with 610 eggs on June 20, 1997, spent three months behind bars while awaiting trial on other charges; a judge then gave him credit for time served. Bruce Bivins, who was on the beach with Hayes, escaped jail time altogether, and a judge later released him from community service because he had a bad back.
Many of the convicted poachers are repeat offenders. Keel, who's still serving his five-year sentence in a North Carolina federal prison, was arrested four times in a two-month stretch in 1989 -- and twice a year later. Then there's 50-year-old James Bivins of Riviera Beach, who police say is related to Bruce Bivins. Police charged James Bivins with poaching eggs once in 1973, twice in 1988, once in 1995, and once in 1998. In 1990, a Palm Beach County judge slapped James Bivins with the maximum fine allowed under law -- $100 an egg -- after wildlife officers found him on the beach holding a bag of 1088 eggs. He never had to pay the $109,300 fine, though; a federal appeals court overturned the sentence a year later, saying the penalty was too high. Prosecutors dropped charges in the most recent James Bivins case because officers returned the eggs to the nest, rather than follow the typical procedure of holding onto a few of them for evidence.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents have been more successful in putting poachers behind bars for longer terms. In addition to Keel and his record five-year sentence, Winfred Patrick and Gregory Harmon of Boynton Beach served sentences of two years and 15 months respectively for digging up 372 eggs in Palm Beach in 1995. James Bivins, who drove for the two that night, was sentenced to six months in federal prison.
Still awaiting trial on federal charges is James O. McGriff, who sold an undercover state wildlife officer a dozen eggs for $30 in June outside his mother's home in Riviera Beach, according to court documents. McGriff, 43, had 341 turtle eggs bundled for sale in the bed of a pickup, officers say. The arrest was the first successful sting in Riviera Beach since Andrew Jenkins and Andrew Daniels sold eggs to undercover officers in 1981 outside a bar, according to Ardelean.
The only other successful sting in recent years was a chance purchase in July 1994 by two undercover federal agents. They bought a dozen Nicaraguan sea turtle eggs for $18 from a Miami restaurant called La Hormiga de Oro, which, in English, means "The Ant of Gold." The husband-and-wife proprietors, Daniel and Francis Gonzalez, were sentenced to six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to importing and selling the eggs. The size of the Miami black market isn't clear. Authorities there have had similar problems infiltrating the network. To support the rumors of an active black market in Miami, Ardelean says customs agents at Miami International Airport have claimed that sea turtle eggs are frequently smuggled in from South America.
Despite the prevalence of poaching, South Florida police generally pay little attention to poaching. In Riviera Beach, where conservation commission officers believe more turtle eggs are sold than anywhere else in the country, Chief of Police Clarence Williams III isn't aware of the problem. "In the Riviera Beach area? Are you sure?" he asks. "What do folks poach them for? They eat them or something?"
When Williams took his job in February, he instituted Operation Street Corner to tackle problems identified by community leaders. It's not surprising that sea turtle egg poaching wasn't on the list when the main concerns were rampant drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime. Three percent of Palm Beach County's population lives in Riviera Beach, while one in five of the county's murders was committed there last year.