By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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.
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.
"The things they tell you about eggs isn't always true, man," Peterkine says with a nod of his head. "You hears this and you hears that, but I'm the one who knows."
At age 46, Peterkine claims to have poached sea turtle eggs since his father taught him how decades ago. Back then, police didn't care much about poachers' raiding nests, and many men in Riviera Beach taught their sons about the supposed machismo hidden inside sea turtle eggs.
Most poachers use fishing poles or broom handles to find eggs, as Keel did in 1998, but Peterkine boasts that the good ones employ only their eyes, even in the tar-black darkness of a moonless beach. "You can see 'em glow through the sand," he says with a wide smile, showing a mouth full of gold broken up by empty tooth sockets. "You can see 'em. They're green, right through the sand."
Unloading a bucket of sea turtle eggs in Riviera Beach doesn't take long, Peterkine claims. Through word of mouth, he sells them outside his home on a residential street of '50s style, rectangular houses or in front of convenience stores on nearby Dixie Highway. Like most dealers, Peterkine knows better than to go to the beach himself. He's been convicted of poaching twice in the past 22 years and has served a month in jail. To protect himself from arrest, he says he hires crackheads and gives them the rundown on how to spot a nest before dropping them off at the beach. He tells them how to cover up the evidence by tossing sand as the turtles do while digging nests. He warns the crackheads that only fresh eggs sell; they harden after a couple of days in the ground.
To protect himself, Peterkine says he sells only to people he knows. He wouldn't say what kind of profit he earns, but typically poachers garner as little as 50 cents an egg, while dealers ask for $3 on the streets. Each nest, with about 100 eggs, could return a $250 profit for a middleman like Peterkine. He justifies his role in the poaching business by explaining that it's legal in other countries. He has family in the Caribbean, where the eggs are a delicacy, and he knows they are openly sold on the streets of some South American countries.
Then the lanky man stands up to shoo a floppy-eared dog back into his house before speaking angrily about his place in life: "I might not be a literate man, but I knows things. I knows how to find them eggs. That's always gonna be good for somethin'." He continues to speak of poaching until his wife comes home from work, when, after a look from her, he only shakes his head when asked about the eggs.
After witnessing a sea turtle's trek up the beach to lay her eggs, one can easily understand why these creatures have caught the public's attention. As their flippers barely push them across the beach, their oval eyes wink in fatigue. They struggle for hours to build a nest of sand before an exhausting trip back into the sea.
Two of the turtles that typically lay eggs in Florida, the green and the leatherback, are listed by federal regulators as endangered; the third, the loggerhead, is designated as threatened. Perhaps the best-known of the dozens of varieties that nest in the state, the loggerhead is named for its massive skull and powerful, shellfish-smashing jaw. Although three-foot-long adults can weigh 350 pounds, their hatchlings are not much bigger than palmetto bugs.
Florida outlawed the poaching of sea turtle eggs in 1953, but a shortage of game wardens meant that sting operations -- the primary method of busting the lawbreakers -- were rare. Poaching arrests didn't become common until the 1980s, when conservation efforts became popular.
But even today, when turtles appear on a state license plate and are held in the same high regard as manatees or dolphins, wildlife officers have little opportunity to catch poachers. The state's conservation commission employs 100 officers to patrol southeastern Florida, a seven-county area roughly the size of El Salvador. These officers have time to conduct only a handful of stings a year while also handling boating safety, cracking down on illegal fishing, and patrolling the backcountry for off-season hunting. In any week, they may target illegal snook sales, the trade of eagle feathers, and the sale of endangered animals' skulls.
When they manage a turtle-egg-poaching arrest, usually once or twice a season, officers complain that state law allows them to charge suspects only with a misdemeanor. In the rare event that an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is available, authorities can accuse poachers of violating the Endangered Species Act. a charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence.
But the federal government has only ten wildlife agents in Florida, and they are too overburdened to take on most turtle-egg-poaching cases, says Mike Elkins, the assistant special agent in charge at the wildlife service's Atlanta office. Typically, federal agents won't take over unless the case involves commercial trade. Then those agents must attract the attention of federal prosecutors, who are busy these days with terrorism, political corruption, and the drug trade. "These endangered-species cases are more difficult to prove than your typical bank robbery, so the U.S. attorneys are more likely to say they haven't got time," Elkins says. "We have to pick and choose which cases to bring to them."
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.
A former Cincinnati police lieutenant brought in to root out corruption in the department, Williams criticizes conservation commission officers for conducting undercover stings in Riviera Beach. "Some of those other agencies do us a disservice when they ride around and ask dope dealers about an alleged industry," Williams asserts. "If you go around and ask dope dealers and prostitutes where you can find something, they're going to tell you they can get it for you, whether they can or not. If I sound a little perplexed, it's because I am."
On a sweltering Thursday night, conservation commission officer Chris Harris takes a seat next to two gray-haired men at Club T Rays, a ramshackle bar on Dixie Highway in Riviera Beach. Harris, who is black, like every patron inside Club T Rays this August evening, starts up some small talk about the Steelers game on the TV above the bar. But he stands out in his pressed jeans and plaid shirt.
He later recalls the conversation he had with the two men, starting with small talk and easing in for the kill. "You all ever used Viagra?" he asks the two men next to him.
"Oh yeah, I've got some in my pocket now," one of them replies.
"You know what's even better than Viagra?" Harris asks tentatively. "Sea turtle eggs."
"Oh, man," the other guy says. "You can get your ass into big trouble with turtle eggs."
But the two tell Harris they know a few spots in Riviera Beach where a man can score eggs. There's the liquor store parking lot on Dixie Highway and the get-anything-you-need street corner on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. After his conversation with the pair ends, Harris heads out to a dinged-up Toyota pickup in the bar's parking lot, where he relays what he learned to Capt. Ardelean, who grabs a radio and orders a pack of officers waiting around the corner to follow Harris to a new spot.
Undercover stings like this one may soon become more common, Ardelean says. But the logistics make them difficult to plan. Ardelean has to pay about a dozen employees overtime to spend most of the night waiting in pickup trucks as backup. And he must find a black officer willing and able to go undercover. Of the conservation commission's 665 officers, only 13, less than 2 percent, are black. Harris is one of two black officers in the region. Usually, he spends his days patrolling Okeechobee County, busting fishermen for pulling in too many catfish or hunters targeting wild turkeys off-season.
Around the corner from Club T Rays, Harris walks up to a group of men beside a pickup truck outside a convenience store. In the crowd, a dope dealer on a bicycle claims to know a guy named "Bow Legs" who deals in turtle eggs. Harris tells the dealer he has a cooler of fish in the back of his truck that he is willing to trade for eggs. The dealer pedals over to a pay phone while Harris waits for an arduous 22 minutes under a streetlight. Cars constantly pull into the store parking lot, apparently to exchange cash for drugs.
A nervous Ardelean circles his Lumina past Harris every minute or so to make sure his undercover man isn't in trouble. Ardelean, who is 46 years old, knows a bit about the streets. He grew up in a tough part of Miami. And he knows about poaching too. He caught snook and spiny lobsters off-season as a kid; for him, it was a matter of catching dinner. "My father died when I was 13, and we needed food; that's why I did it," he says. "They always say it takes one to catch one."
If the drug dealer on the bicycle comes back with eggs, Ardelean plans to deep-freeze a few and ship them to the University of Florida, as he does after every sea turtle poaching arrest. The genetics analysis laboratory would take a snippet from a shell to compare its DNA with a database that can pinpoint the region where the eggs were laid. Even the sand on the eggs can be matched to granules found in the dealer's shoes.
Harris crosses his legs and leans against the pickup while waiting for the bicycle-riding drug dealer to return. On his last pass, Ardelean spots Harris briefly talking with the man, then jumping into the pickup empty-handed. "He's got eggs, but he's fixin' his car tonight," Harris tells Ardelean over the radio. It would raise suspicion if they push him to make the sale. So, a few minutes shy of 10 p.m., Ardelean calls off Harris and his horde of backup officers. They sort out the lessons from the failed sting operation over pancakes and greasy burgers at a nearby International House of Pancakes. Harris hopes his work will provide inroads for next season. Starting in May, Harris says he plans to return to Riviera Beach a few times over several weeks with a cooler of fish to sell. He'll gain the old-timers' trust, then ask about eggs. "Everybody's peddling something out there: crack, fish, whatever," Harris says. "It won't be too hard for me to fit in once I've sold something to them."
The sun hasn't come up over the ocean when Debbie Sobel begins her routine brisk walk up Singer Island recently. Sobel is founder of the island's Sea Turtle Conservation League. Every day, she or one of the dozen volunteers she oversees makes the two-and-a-half-mile trek to monitor the beach, where turtles lay eggs in 1000 nests a mile each season.
This is prime area for poachers. One-fifth of Florida's 71,000 nests last year were counted in Palm Beach County. The nests are also common to the north, but fewer poachers work there. Researchers found fewer than 2900 nests last year on the more populated beaches in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In the past, poachers have rarely struck outside Southeast Florida, but this year, they stole eggs from three nests in Naples and another in St. Petersburg; the latter was the first known poaching in the Tampa Bay area in 25 years.
The damage left by poachers is typically easy to spot, Sobel says. In the sand, the sloppy ones leave knee imprints, a circle from a bucket, or tracks from a sack heavy with eggs. Smart ones walk in the surf until they find the sea turtle tracks. Then they wipe down their trail with a towel.
"Sometimes I give them names," Sobel says with a bittersweet laugh. "I had Big Foot and his friend Little Foot one year. They were good, but they left footprints all over the place that let me identify them." When two poachers were arrested later that season, cops confirmed one had the enormous feet she spotted in the sand.
Sobel's group is one of 123 recruited by the state-run Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg to monitor sea turtle nests. For 23 years, these volunteers have scoured beaches from Panama City to Jacksonville to monitor turtle-nesting.
But for all the good intentions that fuel the massive effort, no one keeps an accurate record of how many nests are raided each year or how many eggs are lost in other ways to human predators. The beach patrols have never kept an accurate count of poached nests. In addition, no one analyzes the sparse numbers that do exist to determine whether there's a trend. Neither beach volunteers nor wildlife officers nor lawmakers know whether poaching has increased.
The lack of record-keeping makes it more difficult for advocates like the survivor league to lobby for efforts to stop poaching, says Dan Evans, the group's education coordinator. The state will need to start keeping statistics on the problem if it hopes to gauge the damage poaching causes, Evans says.
Sobel, who refers to herself as "The Turtle Lady," talks in a hushed voice about poached nests she has found as she trudges up a dune on Singer Island. She finds only a few nests a year on average, but some years, poachers become more blatant. This year, her volunteers have found three or four nests poached. Sobel was quick to point out that it's not easy to stop egg theft.
As the sun peaks over the horizon, 49-year-old Sobel discovers a ghost crab pulling a sea turtle into its hole. Sobel runs up the beach to a nest nearby and digs out hatchlings struggling to the surface, hoping to protect them from the crab. But the surf has washed over the nest a few times too many, lowering the temperature within, so only a few survive. Sobel pulls out 83 infertile eggs, along with 15 hatchlings that she points toward the water. Those odds are not abnormal for a species whose offspring have only a 1-in-10,000 chance at survival.
From there, the turtles will swim for three days until they reach the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and float with the tide. Years later, as they have for 150,000 millennia, females that survive will return, build nests, and lay eggs on the same stretch of beach they crawled down as hatchlings. After a short gestation, tiny sea turtles will once again fight off everything from armadillos to men with plans to make a few bucks.