latest news Snake seller caught in wildlife trafficking at reptile show

David Sneddon’s troubles with federal agents began at a stand where he sold pythons, red-tailed boas and rattlesnakes at Repticon, a reptile show in South Carolina.

A customer inspecting his Mojave sidewinders took Sneddon’s phone number. Sneddon had no idea the man was an undercover informant for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the next 18 months, federal agents surreptitiously recorded all of the informant’s phone conversations with Sneddon and intercepted all of their texts as they arranged purchases of albino snakes, scorpions, lizards and other creatures.

Sneddon, 44, a truck driver who lives in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, pleaded guilty in October to wildlife trafficking, admitting he made illegal shipments of African bush vipers and other snakes exotics from California to the informant from Atlanta.

Prosecutors have asked for a four-month prison sentence, but on Monday, U.S. District Judge Mark C. Scarsi instead sentenced Sneddon to five months in house arrest.

“I’m happy with it,” Sneddon said afterwards.

Wildlife trafficking is booming around the world. Interpol, the global police network, ranks it as one of the international crime syndicates’ most lucrative rackets, generating billions of dollars a year from the slaughter of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other wildlife. for ivory and other illicit goods. It threatens the extinction of a variety of species.

In the United States, prosecutors have targeted smugglers of lion skulls, shark fins and rare songbirds in recent years.

Jose Manuel Perez, an Oxnard man who has called himself the Pablo Escobar of wildlife crimes, admitted last year in federal court in Los Angeles that he had smuggled 1,700 animals – including baby crocodiles and four-eyed turtles – from Mexico to the United States, prosecutors say. .

When Perez crossed the border late at night, customs officers found 60 alligator lizards and dwarf boas hiding in the clothes he was wearing; three of the reptiles were dead.

US Customs and Border Protection found 60 reptiles in small bags on the body of Jose Manuel Perez as he attempted to smuggle the animals across the US-Mexico border on February 25, 2022.

(US Attorney’s Office)

Sneddon’s operation was smaller and strictly domestic, according to court documents. Her case illustrates how the world of routine reptile trade among Americans who run pet stores or collect snakes as a hobby sometimes overlaps with the criminal wildlife trade.

Sneddon, who calls his business West Coast Reptile Exchange, is a lifelong snake enthusiast who grew up in central Florida. His passion was sparked by his capture of a snake at the age of 4.

“I love reptiles,” he said in an interview before sentencing. “I love all of them.”

His favorites are speckled rattlesnakes, due to their various patterns and colors – black, white, blue, pink, purple.

One of the native California reptiles he admitted to illegally selling to the informant was a blue-speckled rattlesnake. According to federal prosecutors, state law restricts possession of the speckled rattlesnake, as well as Uganda pit vipers, western diamond and other snakes sold by Sneddon. Puff Adders are one of Africa’s deadliest snakes.

It is a violation of Federal Lacey Law to ship wildlife across state lines if its possession is illegal under state law.

Sneddon has been trading reptiles for decades and he knows some of the state snake sales laws. South Carolina, for example, is extremely permissive compared to California, he said.

“You could walk into a pet store and buy a 12-foot king cobra” in South Carolina, Sneddon said.

In a secretly recorded phone call with the tip in August 2020, Sneddon said he couldn’t sell him a red diamond rattlesnake because it was “endangered and protected in California” and therefore banned. under the Lacey Act.

‘We get caught shipping this, it’s jail time for both of us,’ he told the insider, according to charging documents filed in court by Constable Tracey G. Woodruff. of the US Fish and Wildlife Service who conducted the investigation of Sneddon.

Repicon, a traveling reptile show that attracts thousands of customers most weekends in cities across the country, attracts hundreds of home sellers doing business under names including Gecko Junkie, Slithermania and Snakes for the Memories . It’s a tight-knit community.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Sneddon said in the interview. “Everybody pretty much knows who raises what, who keeps what, who sells what, who works on what breeding projects, or who imports or exports, who has connections in Egypt, who has connections in Africa, who has connections in China.”

Sneddon’s first meeting with the informant was on the weekend of July 4, 2020 at a Repicon trade show in Columbia, South Carolina. The informant was a venomous reptile expert who was established in the business and had no criminal history, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sneddon told the informant that he typically sells 25 to 35 reptiles at a time and ships them in crates from the Delta Airlines cargo terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, according to Woodruff’s complaint. Sneddon falsely labeled the crates to dodge law enforcement, Woodruff wrote, and he maintained a nationwide network of buyers “for his illegally captured reptiles.”

Sneddon charged the informant $2,745 for his first shipment of snakes, scorpions, lizards and geckos. Woodruff, using a fake name and address, sent the money to Sneddon on Venmo and picked up the shipment in Atlanta.

Sneddon told the informant he was hunting more reptiles that summer in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Woodruff said, and then went on five more expeditions of similar size.

One of them included ebony tarantulas and hairy scorpions. Another included a $1,500 gila monster, a poisonous lizard with orange stripes, according to Woodruff.

As part of his plea deal, Sneddon admitted to only making the first shipment.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles declined to discuss details of the Sneddon case. But in general, they say illegal sales of reptiles endanger rare species, increase demand on the black market and endanger cargo handlers who don’t realize they’re handling poisonous snakes.

Mark Williams, head of the environmental crimes unit at the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said reptiles are often shipped in boxes without food or air by people whose hobbies turn out to have a bad side. .

“I think it’s starting in a good place,” he said. “It starts with loving lizards, and it turns into traffic, and then hundreds or thousands.”

Ultimately, he said, the seller’s goal is profit. “They end up doing it for the money,” Williams said. “They literally take animals out of the wild, sell them for money and just decimate the wild populations of these animals.”

For his part, Sneddon hopes that house arrest won’t stop his plans to attend a Repicon show next month in Costa Mesa.

He and his nephew plan to sell boas, colubrids and pythons, as well as spiders and tarantulas. Legally.

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