Christopher Hayes, owner of the Boynton Beach auction house Elite Estate Buyers, Inc., was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the smuggling of rhinoceros horns into South Florida. Hayes was also sentenced for his role in bringing in elephant tusks and an endangered coral.
The smuggling and selling of rhinoceros horns is a highly lucrative, yet highly illegal activity. Complex criminal heists have been executed over rhino horns, and a black market Internet network sells the prized booty for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Parts of Asia, including China and Vietnam, highly covet rhinoceros horns, which many believe have healing powers over cancer. Some even believe the horns are a good hangover cure.
The money this cruel practice brings in has driven poachers from all over the world to hunt down rhinoceroses for their horns. Some poachers want to collect the horns at such a rapid pace, there have been reports of them sawing the horns off a rhino's head while the animal was still alive.
The lucrative and illegal business of selling black rhino horns found its way to Boynton Beach where, according to the charges filed against Hayes, 55, by the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2014, they were auctioned off for as much as $70,000 at Elite Decorative Arts. The items would then be shipped to China through some shady maneuverings.
According to prosecutors, Hayes helped international buyers by steering them towards third-party shippers who were willing to send the items to China without the proper paperwork.
The auction house, which has been banned from trading in any wildlife-related items for five years — has been known to sell expensive artifacts, such as ancient Chinese jade, antique furniture and fine porcelain. But Hayes was caught when he bought endangered black rhino horns from an undercover agent working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Additionally, Hayes sold six black rhino horns to a Texas resident who would then smuggle them to China. Two of the horns fetched up over $80,000 each.
The charging documents say that Hayes admitted to being part of a felony conspiracy that would ship endangered and protected species by falsifying paper work and shipping documents. Moreover, Hayes admitted to selling elephant ivory and protected coral to the President of an antiques business in Canada named Xiao Ju Guan. Guan was eventually charged in New York and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in March.
The original charging document says that the rising value of rhino horns has resulted in more demand.
"Not only did Hayes and his company illegally profit from obtaining rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory, but his greed and indifference contributed to the senseless slaughter of these animals," U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer said in January, via the Sun-Sentinel. "Trafficking in endangered and threatened species is illegal. Together with our law enforcement partners, we will strictly enforce the laws that protect our environment and our wildlife."
During that hearing in a Florida federal court, Hayes pleaded guilty to trafficking in the items. In addition to his three year prison sentence, Hayes was ordered to pay a $1.5 million criminal fine.