The accused ringleader of a scheme to illegally trade wildlife with Chinese businessmen admitted in court Tuesday to his involvement in buying and selling endangered turtles — some extremely rare — from his home in rural South Carolina.
Steven Verren Baker, a 38-year-old Holly Hill resident, faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for his role in what prosecutors said is a major illegal wildlife trading operation involving dealers in New York, Hong Kong and the Carolinas.
At least 10 people have been charged, including six men with S.C. ties, in connection with that trading operation, authorities said.
In many cases, Baker and his cohorts were shipping or receiving rare turtles in boxes labeled as snacks. Inside the boxes, the turtles were covered in candy wrappers or stuffed in socks to prevent detection, court records show.
Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said Baker's guilty plea will help the government make other cases. As part of the plea, Baker agreed to cooperate with officials.
"He knew everything, all the transactions, what everybody did,'' Holliday said after the hearing.
Holliday said illegal wildlife trading can be lucrative. But it also threatens to eradicate important animal species while exposing the United States to disease from illegally imported animals.
Collectively, the multitude of turtles traded between Hong Kong and the United States were valued at up to $409,000, records show. Many reptiles, illegally imported from Hong Kong, were shipped to Baker's home in Holly Hill, court records show. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the case.
"The illicit reptile trade is widespread,'' Holliday said.
The bearded Baker, wearing shackles and an orange prison jump suit, entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to traffic in wildlife to Senior U.S. District Court Judge Joe Anderson. Baker has been in the Lexington County jail since his arrest in the Walterboro area two months ago.
Baker's lawyer, assistant federal public defender James P. Rogers, declined comment after Tuesday's hearing in Columbia. Baker's troubles are the latest in a series of run-ins he has had with federal authorities in the past six years over the sale of reptiles. In 2015, Baker and another man received probation after the men violated federal wildlife trafficking laws, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
In the current case, five other men with S.C. connections have pleaded not guilty to illicit wildlife trading charges and are awaiting trial. Those men are: Joseph Logan Brooks of Holly Hill, Matthew Tyler Fischer and William Martin Fischer of Harleyville, Matthew Harrison Kail of Florida and William Gangemi of New Jersey.
All were in federal court Tuesday but declined comment after the hearing.
The charges include failing to obtain permits required under an international wildlife treaty to import or export turtles.
Some of the turtles traded included box turtles, a native S.C. species thought to be dwindling in numbers. Rare Asian turtles, such as the big-headed turtle, also were shipped to the United States from Hong Kong, court documents show. Some of the turtles being traded were protected by international agreements because they are so rare.
Many turtles bought and sold on the black market wind up either as food in Asia or as exotic pets, experts say.