BROOKLYN, N.Y. – An Irish citizen pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tuesday to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act in relation to illegal rhinoceros horn trafficking. The guilty plea follows an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Michael Slattery Jr., 25, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Under the terms of the plea agreement, any proceeds from the illegal trafficking that remain in the United States will be forfeited or put toward the criminal fine.
In the plea agreement, Slattery admitted that he, along with others, traveled throughout the United States to illegally purchase and sell endangered rhinoceros horns. Slattery was arrested in September as part of "Operation Crash," a nationwide, multi-agency crackdown on those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horn.
"The black rhinoceros has been driven to the brink of extinction by this illicit trade," said Special Agent in Charge Andrew McLees of HSI Newark. "HSI, along with our partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice, stand ready to protect these beautiful creatures from the villains who would trade the rhino’s continued existence on this planet for a quick buck."
"Slattery and his co-conspirators traveled to the United States to profit from the illegal trade in black rhinoceros horns," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher. "The black rhino is a species that, without our protection, could be headed for extinction in our own time. Rhino horn trafficking is a violation of the laws enacted by Congress to protect endangered species from extinction and the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute those who engage in this egregious market."
"Today’s guilty plea highlights our commitment to protect endangered species, like the black rhinoceros, by prosecuting those who would profit from the rhinos’ extinction," said U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch. "Michael Slattery traveled the world in pursuit of illicit profit from the sale of blank rhino horns. But instead of gaining a windfall by contributing to the demise of an age-old species, Slattery now faces up to five years in prison for his illegal conduct."
"The involvement of an alleged member of an organized criminal group in rhino horn trafficking speaks to the scope, scale, and lawlessness of this problem," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "We will continue to work closely with the Department of Justice to crack down on profiteers whose crimes are pushing rhinos to the brink of extinction."
Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. They have no known predators other than humans. All species of rhinoceros are protected under United States and international law, and all black rhinoceros species are endangered.
Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by over 170 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets. Nevertheless, the demand for rhinoceros horn and black market prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to the value that some cultures have placed on ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, leading to a decimation of the global rhinoceros population.
Operation Crash is a continuing investigation being conducted by FWS in coordination with other federal and local law enforcement agencies including HSI. A "crash" is the term for a herd of rhinoceros. Operation Crash is an ongoing effort to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns. The investigation is being led by the Special Investigations Unit of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement and involves a nationwide task force of agents focused on rhino trafficking.
According to court documents:
Beginning in May 2010 and continuing until April 2011, Slattery, along with others, traveled within the United States to purchase rhinoceros horns, which he, along with others, then resold to private individuals or consigned to auction houses in the United States. The profits from the sale of the rhinoceros horns were distributed via cashier’s checks made out to Slattery and others. Slattery used a fictitious "Endangered Species Bill of Sale" in connection with the purchase and sale of rhinoceros horns.
In September 2010, Slattery, along with others, traveled from London to Houston, where they attempted to purchase a taxidermied black rhinoceros mount with two horns from a business in Austin, Texas. The manager of the business refused to sell the mount to the defendant because Slattery and the others did not have proof that they resided in the State of Texas. Within days of being refused, Slattery returned to the establishment in Austin, where, with the assistance of a "straw buyer" that Slattery and his co-conspirators hired, the group purchased the mount for $18,000. At the time of the sale, the purchasers were given an "Endangered Species Bill of Sale" that stated "[s]eller expressly states that the described taxidermy is an endangered species and that interstate or foreign sales, barter and trade are strictly prohibited ...[p]ursuant to [the Endangered Species Act]. Buyer has expressly stated that he/she is a current resident of the State of Texas and has no intention of participating in any form of interstate commerce involving the described taxidermy."
Following the purchase of the mount, Slattery and his co-conspirators traveled to Flushing, N.Y., where they sold the horns from the mount and other horns they had acquired to an individual for $50,000. At the time of the sale, Slattery and his co-conspirators provided the purchaser with a false and fictitious "Endangered Species Bill of Sale." The "Endangered Species Bill of Sale" stated that the two pair of black rhinoceros horns was purchased in August 2010. The falsified document also included a false and fictitious FWS emblem, which it did not have at the time of purchase from the establishment in Texas. Pursuant to instructions from Slattery and his co-conspirators, the purchaser paid for the horns with cashier’s checks. One check in the amount of $12,500 was made payable to Michael Slattery Jr.
His sentencing in the Eastern District of New York is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2014.