Dozens of people, including some of the state's biggest wildlife traffickers, are drawing federal and state scrutiny over their roles in buying and selling wild animals in South Carolina, a state with a growing reputation for black market wildlife dealing.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says it is looking into at least 15 cases of people suspected of breaking state or federal wildlife trade laws. The agency also has passed along the names of up to 30 other suspects to federal authorities or outdoors agencies in other states.
Three of those under scrutiny have been among the biggest wildlife traders in South Carolina, DNR spokesman Robert McCullough said.
Among them is Ashtyn Rance, a Florida man who recently transported hundreds of venomous African snakes to South Carolina and offered them for sale. Some of the snakes have bites lethal enough to kill people in little more than an hour.
Another is Steven Verren Baker of Holly Hill, known for his prowess at finding and exporting native S.C. turtles to China from his home in the woods of Orangeburg County. A gang of people associated with Baker face federal charges.
The death last year of a third major dealer, Freddie Lee Herman Jr., has sparked inquiries into people with whom he associated, McCullough said.
The booming reptile trade is lucrative for dealers, in some cases bringing in tens of thousands of dollars for each sale. But it relies on packaging animals in boxes and shipping them around the world without food and water. The animals also aren't checked for disease that could be spread if they survive the trips.
Finding out about illicit operations is a challenge.
"These guys are very clannish,'' a DNR source familiar with the investigations said. "It just takes so long, and it is so hard to gain their trust in these investigations.''
Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. attorney in Columbia, said efforts will continue to stop the illegal wildlife trade. It's important to prevent imported animals from spreading disease to people or other animals, while preventing exotic animals from establishing themselves in the state, he said.
Snakes on a plane
Rance, a 32-year-old ex-convict from Florida, has run into trouble in the past two months over deadly African snakes. He imported 220 snakes from Africa to Atlanta with plans to sell them in South Carolina at a wildlife show, according to Georgia records and law enforcement authorities interviewed by The State newspaper.
Rance, who has had run-ins with Florida wildlife authorities since 2006, was required by Georgia officials to take the venomous snakes to an address in rural Saluda County within 24 hours of the serpents landing in Atlanta, according to an April 30 import permit he received from the state of Georgia.
But Georgia state investigators say he didn’t get rid of all the snakes in South Carolina, as required. They searched Rance’s property in Valdosta, Ga., two months ago, finding dozens of venomous serpents, Georgia authorities said. Unlike in South Carolina, it is illegal in Georgia to keep or sell exotic venomous snakes without permits.
Among the snakes bound for South Carolina were 20 spitting cobras, 15 bush vipers, 100 Gaboon vipers and a pair of black forest cobras, according to his import permit. All have venom deadly enough to kill or permanently maim a person.
Venom from a forest cobra can kill a person within a few hours, depending on the circumstances. Spitting cobras can blind people who receive a shot of the serpent’s venom in their eyes.
“We seized some exotic venomous wild animals that would be inherently dangerous,’’ Georgia Department of Natural Resources investigator Chad Welch said of the raid. Welch said no charges have been filed, but the case remains under investigation.
Despite the dangers, snakes like those Rance brought to the U.S. are prized by many reptile collectors, who often will pay hundreds of dollars for them because the serpents are exotic.
Rance said he’s done nothing wrong.
Rance, who said he has homes in Florida and Georgia, said he took all the venomous snakes to a wildlife show in the Columbia area, as required by Georgia authorities. He claims the snakes seized in south Georgia were nonvenomous.
“It was really nothing,’’ he said. “They haven’t even charged me yet.’’
Rance’s April 30 Georgia import permit shows he was approved to bring venomous snakes to Atlanta from Africa, but it makes no mention of bringing nonvenomous snakes from the wildlife-rich continent.
Rance has had troubles with law enforcement officers before. From July 2007 to February 2009, he was in a Florida prison serving time on a charge of battering a child, prison records show. Last year, Rance was arrested multiple times in Florida on wildlife charges, records show.
In one case, he faced a dozen charges of possessing wildlife without a permit after being accused of selling pink-toed tarantulas and boa constrictors, records show.
In another case, he was charged with wildlife transport violations following a traffic stop in the Florida Keys. When authorities looked in his vehicle, they found 27 geckos, 33 green iguanas, a rat snake and 37 hermit crabs, the Miami Herald reported in 2017.
Three years earlier, Rance was convicted of possessing a venomous reptile without a license in Brevard County, Fla, according to an April 29, 2016 Florida wildlife agency letter that denied him a license to possess and sell wildlife. He has a conviction dating to 2006 of cruelty to animals, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission letter said.
“They have dealt with him multiple times over the years down there,’’ Georgia’s Welch said. “It’s not like a one-time deal.’’
Rance, who said he was entrapped by police in Florida, said doing business in South Carolina is easier than in the Sunshine State. But he intends to quit the reptile trading business because it is no longer worth the hassle.
“There is no way to do this business legally doing what I do,’’ he said. “There is always a stupid gray line that (you are) going to cross and they have an option to charge you or not.’’
Turtle trading gang
While multiple wildlife cases are ongoing, one of the biggest wildlife traders in South Carolina is sitting in a Richland County jail cell waiting to help federal investigators in their continuing probe of an illicit East Coast reptile trading operation.
Steven Baker, a 38-year-old Holly Hill man whose troubles with the law date back at least 14 years, pleaded guilty June 19 to federal wildlife smuggling conspiracy charges for his role in what prosecutors said was an international reptile trading operation with ties to New York and Hong Kong.
Baker signed a plea deal and is awaiting sentencing later this summer. In his plea agreement with federal prosecutors he promised to help the investigation in the hope of reducing any time he faces in prison. Baker admitted his role in illegally trafficking in rare turtles during the June 19 court hearing in which he pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Some suspects from New York and China were involved, as were five other men with S.C. connections. All are accused of working with Baker. Those with South Carolina ties have pleaded not guilty to a variety of illegal wildlife charges and are awaiting trial later this year in Columbia. Those men are:
<bullet>Joseph Logan Brooks, a Baker business associate accused of receiving rare turtles at a house he and Baker claimed as their address in rural Orangeburg County
<bullet>William and Matthew Fischer, a father and son accused of receiving packages from Hong Kong at addresses in Harleyville. Money also went into a family bank account, according to charges against them.
<bullet>Matthew H. Kail, a Florida man accused of trapping protected turtles from a N.C. wildlife refuge
<bullet>William Gangemi, a New Jersey man accused of participating in the illicit wildlife trading business
Their attorneys declined comment.
Baker, however, was described by prosecutors as the ringleader, who had years of experience collecting and buying turtles from his home in Holly Hill, a small community in Orangeburg County. Baker sometimes paid locals for turtles they collected in the area, said a former neighbor, Daniel Bibby.
Baker “has always been into reptiles, turtles and snakes and lizards and stuff like that,'' Bibby said. But it was a surprise that he began to run into trouble with authorities as he continued with the reptile trading business, said Bibby, who said he has known Baker since childhood.
“You can never tell til someone gets arrested,’’ Bibby said.
Baker’s troubles began when he was accused in 2004 of stealing $21,000 worth of reptiles and amphibians from a Ladson animal exhibit. Since then, Baker has been accused by authorities of wildlife crimes, often involving the sale and import of rare turtles.
Sometimes, Baker used Facebook messages to set up deals with foreign traders, who either wanted U.S. turtles or who wanted to sell Asian turtles in America, say federal prosecutors.
In 2015, Baker was found guilty on federal wildlife trafficking charges. Federal authorities said Baker was illegally selling rare spotted turtles from a business he ran out of his home. He received three years probation for wildlife trafficking and owning firearms, which is not allowed since he was already a convicted felon, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia.
But his troubles didn’t stop there. In 2017, he was found guilty of nonpayment of child support in Berkeley County. Several weeks earlier, Baker was charged with two counts of domestic violence after authorities said he choked and struck a woman, causing her lip to bleed and swell.
Baker’s most recent brush with the law began when he was accused by federal authorities last winter of breaking wildlife trafficking laws. He disappeared after charges were filed, according to federal court records and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia. U.S. Marshals arrested Baker in Walterboro about two months after the indictment. He has remained in a county jail ever since.
Baker’s court-appointed attorney, federal public defender Jimmy Rogers, declined comment.
The operation Baker helped run involved turtles valued at as much as $400,000, federal prosecutors say. During one five-week stretch beginning on March 30 of 2016, an associate of Baker’s and Baker’s common law wife received $31,719 in payments as a result of wildlife trading, records show.
On April 11 of 2016, Baker associate Matthew Fischer received $13,473 from the King Chi Trading Co. in Hong Kong. He then wrote Baker a check for $13,273, according to the federal indictment..
The indictment said the men “fraudulently and knowingly’’ imported and exported species in violation of federal law. Turtles involved in the illicit trading were from China, India, South America and South Carolina, records show.
Wildlife trafficker murdered
One wildlife trader who won’t be indicted is Freddie "Snakeman" Herman of Chesterfield County. The bearded, long-haired Herman was shot and killed outside his mobile home last year in what turned out to be a bizarre case for authorities because his home was crawling with reptiles.
Evidence discovered at his home has led state investigators to people they suspect were involved in illegal wildlife trading through Herman, a former Myrtle Beach resident who was 33 when he died.
An investigator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said his agency now is looking at eight people connected to Herman’s international wildlife dealing. The Herman case was a significant break for state officials because they say they didn’t have any idea he was involved in the trade.
The department “learned the identity of many new individuals, foreign and domestic, involved in the trade,’’ according to an agency report obtained by The State newspaper.
When Chesterfield County sheriff’s deputies arrived at Herman’s trailer in June 2017 to investigate reports of gunshots, they found signs warning of venomous snakes on the door and Herman lying dead in the yard.
“The place was horrible,’’ Chesterfield Sheriff Jay Brooks said. “You couldn’t stand the smell inside. All these snakes were in aquariums or some of them were just in rubber boxes. There was one, some type of python, that was dead in the bathroom.’’
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources helped secure the area and officials say they later learned through the search that Herman had been dealing reptiles. Cellphones and computers at the home were full of information about the wildlife trade, state officials said.
It’s unclear whether the killing had anything to do with his business, but Sheriff Brooks and Chesterfield County prosecutors said it appeared to be the result of a domestic dispute. The case has not gone to trial.
Some of Herman's friends spoke highly of him after his death, saying he was a kind man who loved animals.
Gila monsters and spotted turtles
As investigations continue, others who have run into trouble in recent years include Ray Roberson and Jonathan Sampson Benson.
Roberson, whose Facebook page is full of conservative postings and support for the Confederate Flag, pleaded guilty to violating federal wildlife laws in 2015.
Roberson, who ran a business called Apostle Reptiles, told an undercover wildlife agent that he was earning $9,000 per week selling spotted turtles in multiple states, court records show. It is illegal in South Carolina to own a spotted turtle without a permit, which Roberson did not have, authorities said.
Another man who has been busted for breaking federal or state wildlife trading laws is Jonathan Sampson Benson, caught last year for capturing venomous Gila monsters in Arizona and selling them in South Carolina. He was charged with making similar transactions in 2014, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Benson, a former Greenville resident, was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine after pleading guilty.