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01/10/2011

ICE aids in probe leading to arrest of suspected Japanese turtle smugglers

The live turtles and tortoises smuggled into the United States concealed inside snack food boxes
The live turtles and tortoises smuggled into the United States concealed inside snack food boxes

LOS ANGELES -- Two Japanese nationals made their initial appearance in federal court here Monday following their arrest late last week at Los Angeles International Airport for allegedly bringing approximately 55 live turtles and tortoises into the United States concealed inside snack food boxes discovered in a suitcase.

Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, 49, both Japanese citizens who are believed to reside in Osaka, were arrested without incident early Friday morning by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The arrests are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Operation Flying Turtle, with substantial assistance provided by United States Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Yamagami and Ushirozako are charged in a two-count criminal complaint filed Monday morning that alleges one count of illegally importing wildlife into the United States, an offense that carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison, and one count of violating the Endangered Species Act, a misdemeanor that carries a statutory maximum penalty of one year in prison.

At their initial court appearances Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court, both Yamagami and Ushirozako were ordered detained without bond. An arraignment in the case has been scheduled for January 31.

"Individuals who engage in the smuggling of protected species are unscrupulous law violators who are motivated solely by profit and status, and clearly have no respect for our ecosystem," said Erin L. Dean, resident agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement. "Individuals who participate in the illegal take and trade of protected animals are irreparably harming natural populations and, sadly, contributing to the decline of many types of fragile and delicate species worldwide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will diligently pursue those individuals who profit from their involvement in the illegal wildlife trade."

The case against Yamagami and Ushirozako is the result of an undercover investigation that started one year ago when U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents obtained information about a smuggling operation that was illegally bringing turtles into the United States. In July 2010, agents infiltrated the smuggling ring and purchased approximately 10 protected turtles and tortoises from a person linked to Yamagami and Ushirozako. The turtles and tortoises purchased in the undercover operation were all species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty that protects species being threatened by international trade. Species protected under CITES can legally traded only if the exporting country issues a permit.

"The plundering and smuggling of rare plants and animals to satisfy the desires of hobbyists is not only shameful, in some circumstances it can pose a threat to public safety and the environment," said Claude Arnold, Special Agent in Charge for ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles. "ICE's Homeland Security Investigations will continue working closely with its federal law enforcement counterparts not only to identify those involved with this type of trafficking, but to seize the assets and profits generated by their illegal activities."

In August 2010, Hiroki Uetsuki, an associate of Yamagami and Ushirozako, traveled from Osaka, Japan and arrived at Honolulu International Airport. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers discovered approximately 42 CITES-protected turtles and tortoises hidden in Uetsuki's checked luggage. After U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents arrested Uetsuki, he informed the agents that Yamagami paid him approximately 100,000 yen (approximately $1,200) and his travel expenses to smuggle turtles and tortoises into the United States. Uetsuki pleaded guilty in federal court in Hawaii to a smuggling charge and is scheduled to be sentenced on February 7.