Kang Juntao is accused of running an operation that illegally shipped endangered turtles from the U.S. to Asia

Kang Juntao, 24, of Hangzhou City, China, was extradited from Malaysia and arrived in the United States on Thursday, where he appeared virtually in U.S. District Court in Newark on charges of money laundering. He is being held without bail pending arraignment.

Prosecutors say Kang ran the smuggling ring from China and had never set foot in the United States before landing at JFK International Airport in New York on Thursday, escorted by federal officials.

His court-appointed lawyer, Linda Foster of the U.S. Federal Public Defender’s Office, declined to comment on the case. The consulate at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Between June 2017 and December 2018, Kang arranged for intermediaries to ship turtles taken from American wetlands to associates in Hong Kong and China, according to the complaint filed in federal court. He paid for the turtles through PayPal and U.S. banks, including one in New Jersey, according to prosecutors. The turtles were then sold to wealthy collectors in Asia for thousands of dollars each, depending on coloring, sex and age. A single North American female box turtle deemed “colorful” in Hong Kong’s black market pet trade fetches up to $20,000, prosecutors said.

Kang’s operation sold five types of turtles, according to investigators: the eastern box turtle, Florida box turtle, Gulf Coast box turtle, spotted turtle and wood turtle. All five are considered endangered and are protected under an international treaty signed by more than 180 countries, including the United States, Malaysia and China.

“This extradition is a landmark win because [Kang] is not just the poacher or the shipper. He’s the guy pulling the strings in China,” said Ryan Connors, a trial attorney in the environmental crimes section of the U.S. Justice Department.

From China, Kang recruited and paid people in the United States through online platforms to move turtles and money across the Lower 48 states. Court documents show Kang used PayPal, a digital monetary platform that transfers money between individuals and across currencies. He used Facebook messenger to recruit at least six “middle men” in five states who were “typically college students from China seeking to make extra money on the side,” court documents said.

One of those students, Haixi Sheng, pleaded guilty to smuggling native turtles under Kang’s guidance while enrolled at Pennsylvania State University. He is in federal prison.

Kang’s extradition marks the culmination of a multiyear international investigation that traced the path of turtles from American marshes to Asian markets and included undercover work by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The work was made more complex because the United States and China do not have an extradition agreement, officials said.

“This was our lunar landing,” said Connors, referring to what it took to intercept Kang outside of China’s jurisdiction. “We cleared a lot of hurdles early. We coordinated extensively with police departments and even airlines.”

U.S. authorities surveilled Kang to track his vacation plans to travel from China to Indonesia and then Malaysia, where an American extradition request had already been processed, Connors said. In January 2019, the Royal Malaysian Police, assisted by U.S. federal agents, intercepted Kang at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where he had landed with his girlfriend for a vacation. After nearly two years in Malaysian custody, Kang was flown to the United States.

“The difficulty we have is that a lot of these illegal wildlife shipments are going to people in China and Hong Kong. And we don’t have direct extradition treaties with those places,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who is not involved in the Kang case but has prosecuted domestic poachers of protected turtles from America’s wetlands. “The top criminals can be out of reach sometimes,” said Holliday, “so we do what we can on U.S. soil.”

Once in custody in Malaysia, Kang told investigators that his turtle business had helped him pay for medical school and the beach-hopping vacation through Southeast Asia, which is how authorities were able to intercept him.

Kang first came to the attention of authorities several years ago when a herpetologist tipped off a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent. The agent, Ryan Bessey, posed undercover as a middleman, buying and shipping endangered turtles at Kang’s direction. Between June 2017 and December 2018, Bessey shipped more than 300 turtles, most from a supplier in North Carolina, to Asia on behalf of Kang, according to Bessey’s affidavit.

In return, Kang sent Bessey 40 payments totaling about $80,000 over two years, including a “bonus” for a job well done, investigators said.

A federal grand jury indicted Kang in February 2019 on several money laundering charges. He faces up to 20 years in prison. “If he was facing just a wildlife trafficking charge, it’s a five-year felony,” Connors said. “But money laundering is a powerful charge. We thought the evidence fit the charge.”

Trafficking in endangered species is difficult to prosecute. According to the United Nations’ annual report on wildlife crime, the growth of legal and illegal online pet sales has allowed traffickers to better connect with new buyers and accomplices all over the world. Cross-border cooperation is critical to bringing down organized crime that hurts wildlife, the report said.

The Kang case marks progress in the U.S. government’s larger fight against global wildlife crimes. “There are all sorts of environmental crimes that are perpetrated using social media,” said Meredith Gore, a conservation scientist at the University of Maryland who studies wildlife trafficking. “I’ll also say that law enforcement authorities use social media … to prevent and respond to this kind of stuff as well.”

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