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Reptile-smuggling ring leader sentenced

April 30, 2012 |  3:49 pm

Reptile-smuggling ring leader sentenced

A Japanese national who admitted to smuggling live, endangered turtles and tortoises into the U.S. in snack food containers was sentenced Monday to 21 months in prison, federal prosecutors said.

Atsushi Yamagami, 39, pleaded guilty last August to sneaking in 55 reptiles in snack food boxes stuffed into suitcases, many of which were protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, according to the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. In court papers, prosecutors contended the scheme constituted animal cruelty and risked transmission of salmonella.

Yamagami, according to authorities, was the leader of a smuggling ring that trafficked in chameleons and lizards in addition to turtles and tortoises, all brought into the U.S. through Honolulu or Los Angeles and sold or traded at pet shows across the country. Yamagami, described as "a major wildlife trafficker" in court filings, also bought North American snakes, turtles and tortoises to be smuggled back to Japan, prosecutors said.

In addition to smuggling the animals himself, Yamagami paid couriers to transport reptiles to and from Japan in their luggage, making or arranging a total of 42 trips between 2004 and 2011, according to prosecutors. Two of the couriers, Norihide Ushirozako and Hiroki Uetsuki, were also convicted of wildlife smuggling and sentenced to time served -- seven and six months in prison, respectively.

When he was arrested in January 2011 at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from his home in Osaka, Japan, Yamagami and a courier were carrying Fly River turtles, Indian flapshell turtles, Chinese big-headed turtles, albino Chinese soft-shell turtles and Malayan snail-eating turtles, according to court papers.

In addition to the prison term, Yamagami was ordered to pay $18,403 in fines.

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-- Victoria Kim

Photo: Turtles confiscated at Los Angeles International Airport in January. Credit: Associated Press / U.S. attorney's office

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