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Japanese man pleads guilty to smuggling exotic turtles into LAX

August 1, 2011 |  5:57 pm

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0147e17d198d970b-800wiA Japanese national pleaded guilty Monday to a federal charge of illegally bringing 55 live turtles and tortoises to the U.S. The animals were discovered at Los Angeles International Airport, stashed in snack food boxes inside a suitcase.

Atsushi Yamagami, 39, of Osaka, pleaded guilty to one felony count of smuggling. He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison when he is sentenced Oct. 31 by U.S. District  Judge George H. King.

Yamagami and Norihide Ushirozako were arrested in January by agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of an undercover sting dubbed "Operation Flying Turtle." Also assisting in the investigation were agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigation and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Ushirozako, 49, also from Osaka, pleaded guilty to a single smuggling charge May 23 and is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday. He also faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

The case dates back to last summer when federal agents infiltrated the smuggling ring and purchased about 10 protected turtles and tortoises from an individual linked to Yamagami.

In August 2010, Customs and Border Protection agents at Honolulu International Airport discovered 42 turtles in Hiroki Uetsuki’s checked luggage. Uetsuki told authorities that Yamagami paid him approximately 100,000 yen or about $1,200, as well as travel expenses to smuggle turtles and tortoises into the United States.

Uetsuki pleaded guilty in federal court in Hawaii to a smuggling charge.

The reptiles were all species protected by an international treaty. Such species can be traded legally only with a permit from the country of their origin, federal officials said.


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Photo: U.S. Customs