SPOKANE, Wash. - A federal jury today returned guilty verdicts against a mother and daughter on smuggling and conspiracy charges stemming from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that showed the two women illegally brought an exotic breed of monkey into the United States from Thailand.
Gypsy Lawson, 28, of Spokane, and Fran Ogren, 56, of Northport, Wash., failed to declare on their Customs forms that they were bringing a rhesus macaque monkey home from Bangkok on November 28, 2007.
Two months later, ICE agents assisted the FWS in executing a federal search warrant at Ogren's Northport residence. Agents discovered several pieces of documentation, including photographs and handwritten notes, confirming that Ogren and Lawson had obtained a rhesus macaque monkey in Thailand and smuggled it into the United States.
That same day, agents also executed a federal search warrant at Lawson's Spokane home. They encountered the monkey at the house and immediately placed it into quarantine. Agents also seized handwritten travel journals detailing the women's attempts to acquire a monkey for Lawson that was small enough to conceal during air travel back to the United States.
The journal provided confirmation that the monkey was smuggled into the United States by hiding it under Lawson's shirt and pretending she was pregnant in order to get past U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors at the airport.
Agents also found photographs of Lawson wearing loose fitting clothing standing outside an airport. In one photograph, she appears to have a protruding abdomen as if she were pregnant. Other photos showed her on an airplane with a date stamp of November 28, 2007.
"Individuals who conceal their actions and deceive authorities at our nation's borders can endanger the public's health and safety," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of ICE's Office Investigations in the Pacific Northwest. "ICE will work with our federal law enforcement partners to investigate any type of smuggling activity that violates federal law."
"The callousness and intent these people showed in carrying out their plan was egregious and placed at risk not only wildlife but potentially the health of other passengers on the plane and in their community," said Paul Chang, special agent in charge of law enforcement for the Pacific Region of the FWS. "These animals are known carriers of viruses and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, although this particular animal tested negative."
The monkey is now living at a rescue center for abandoned primates.
The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced March 3, 2009. The smuggling conviction carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of up to five years and a $250,000 fine.
A co-defendant in the case, James Edward Pratt, 34, of Spokane, previously pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possessing and transporting prohibited wildlife. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January 2009.
All wildlife, including rhesus macaques, must be declared to CBP at the port of first arrival in the United States. When importing any wildlife, importers or their agents must file a completed Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish and Wildlife.
ICE joined the FWS and the Royal Thai Police's Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok in this investigation.