Feds Bust U.S. Rhino Horn Smuggling Ring
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 23, 2012
The arrests and seizures sprang from an 18-month investigation, called Operation Crash, so-named because “crash” is another name for a herd of rhinos, said Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The undercover operation was forced into the open when accused trafficker Wade Steffen of Hico, Texas, and his wife and mother were stopped by Transportation Security Administration officials at Long Beach Airport on Feb. 9 with $337,000 in their carry-on luggage, authorities said. A TSA officer found $20,000 in $100-bill bundles in Molly Steffen’s purse. “That money is not mine,” Molly Steffen said, according to a federal affidavit. “I assume my husband put it in my purse.”
Merrily Steffen, the mother, allowed officers to view the pictures on the memory card of a camera she was carrying, according to the affidavit. It contained images of “stacks of $100 bills bound with rubber bands” and “rhinoceros horns being weighed on scales.”
Wade Steffen is incarcerated in Texas. Neither his wife nor his mother was arrested.
During their probe, wildlife officials had intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from the Steffen family and the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in live and stuffed exotic animals, court records show. The packages were opened, the horns were identified by scientists and the items were repackaged and sent along to Kha’s export business or Nguyen’s nail shop, then presumably smuggled out of the country, according to law enforcement sources and court records.
Investigators tracked the movements of hundreds of thousands of dollars though bank wire transfers, including to accounts in China, and travel records of suspects who flew between Los Angeles and Asia, as well as between California, Texas and Missouri.
Read the full article here. The US Fish & Wildlife press release follows after the break:
WASHINGTON – Seven people have been arrested on charges of trafficking in endangered black rhinoceros horn over the past week in Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and New York, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior today announced. Special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) made the arrests and have executed search warrants in five different states as part of “Operation Crash,” a multi-agency effort to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horn.
In Los Angeles, Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national who allegedly oversaw the shipment of at least dozens of rhino horns from the United States to China, was arrested last night. Last weekend, members of an alleged U.S.-based trafficking ring that supplied rhino horns to Feng were arrested after being charged with conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act for purchasing rhino horns from various suppliers in the U.S. Charges were filed against Jimmy Kha, the owner of Win Lee Corporation; his son Felix Kha; and Mai Nguyen, the owner of a nail salon where packages containing rhinoceros horns were being mailed. One of the alleged suppliers, Wade Steffen, was arrested in Hico, Texas, and charged in Los Angeles. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the Khas began receiving packages from Steffen and another supplier in 2010. Seventeen packages were opened under federal search warrants and 37 rhinoceros horns were found.
A search of Steffen’s luggage at the Long Beach Airport in California on Feb. 9, 2012, turned up $337,000 in cash. In additional searches conducted by FWS and ICE, agents found rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches. Approximately $1 million in cash was seized and another $1 million seized in gold ingots.
“The rhino is an animal of prehistoric origin that is facing possible extinction because of an illegal trade for its horns on the black market that is driven by greed,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The rhino is protected under both U.S. and international law, and we are taking aggressive action to protect the rhino by investigating and vigorously prosecuting those who are engaged in this brutal trade.”
In New Jersey, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, on a felony trafficking charge in violation of the Lacey Act after purchasing rhino horns from an individual from New York at a service station off of the New Jersey Turnpike. Even-Ezra allegedly brought a scale for weighing the horns and envelopes of cash to the meeting, which was brokered by an individual outside of the United States.
In U.S. District Court in Manhattan, antiques expert David Hausman was also charged with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction, both in violation of the Lacey Act. Hausman allegedly purchased a black rhinoceros mount (a taxidermied head of a rhinoceros) from an undercover officer in Illinois and was later observed sawing off the horns in a motel parking lot. Rhino horns were found in a search conducted on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, following his arrest.
“Rhino horn traffickers continue to fuel the illegal demand for horn, demand that has led to hundreds of rhino deaths and put the white and black rhino in danger of extinction in the wild,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “These arrests have dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling, but represent only the beginning of a significant crackdown on this illegal trade.”
“The illegal trade in endangered wildlife robs the world of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat,” said ICE Director John Morton. “This case is a reflection of our commitment to ensuring that our children and grandchildren are not deprived by criminals whose only goal is to make a quick buck at the expense of these innocent creatures.”
Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law. All black rhinoceros species are endangered. Rhino horns are composed of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails. Rhinoceros horn is a highly valued and sought-after commodity despite the fact that international trade has been largely banned since 1976. The demand for rhinoceros horn, which is used by some cultures for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, has resulted in a thriving black market – a market that has escalated in recent years in both volume and per-unit profit.
If convicted, maximum penalties under these charges are up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy; five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for Lacey Act violations; and up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Operation Crash (a “crash” is the term for a herd of rhinoceros) is a continuing investigation by the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior FWS, with assistance from other federal and local law enforcement agencies including ICE and the Internal Revenue Service. The investigation is being led by the Special Investigations Unit of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement and involves a task force of agents focused on rhino trafficking.
A criminal complaint is a charge based on probable cause allegations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted.
The criminal prosecution is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri.