WILMINGTON, NC (WRIC) — A North Carolina man was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for his role in a turtle smuggling operation that prosecutors say could be worth as much as $1.5 million.
Jesse James Freeman, 48, is a North Carolina resident, and he pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to traffic in protected or endangered animals.
Freeman admitted to smuggling “at least 722 eastern box turtles, 122 spotted turtles and three wood turtles,” some of which he captured himself and some of which he paid others to provide him.
According to prosecutors, Freeman himself made $122,000 from the scheme, but the animals could be worth as much as $1.5 million when they’re sold to collectors in Asia.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking,” said Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles.”
Freeman was caught after an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As part of his plea, he’ll be required to pay $25,000 to the Lacey Act reward fund, which pays rewards to whistleblowers who report violations of the act.
None of the three species poached by Freeman are currently endangered, but they are protected under international and federal law because they “are not presently threatened with extinction but may become so if their trade is not regulated.”