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International reptile smuggler caught taking over 1,000 turtles from Oklahoma, feds say

A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking more than 1,000 box turtles from Oklahoma in a wildlife smuggling syndicate, prosecutors say. Photo from Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking more than 1,000 box turtles from Oklahoma in a wildlife smuggling syndicate, prosecutors say. Photo from Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

A New Jersey man who stole more than 1,000 box turtles from Oklahoma as part of a “syndicate of wildlife smugglers” pleaded guilty Wednesday, prosecutors say.

William “Billy” Gangemi, 26, smuggled the three-toed and western box turtles in a criminal syndicate that exchanged protected turtles between the U.S. and China, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma.

The guilty plea is just the latest chapter for Gangemi’s criminal case. In June, he was sentenced to two years of probation by a federal judge in South Carolina for his part in the broader turtle smuggling scheme — which included shipping reptiles in candy packages and socks to avoid detection, The State reported. Five others involved in the scheme also were arrested, the McClatchy newspaper reported.

Gangemi agreed to pay $350,000 as part of the plea agreement. Of that, $250,000 will go to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and $100,000 will be paid to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prosecutors said.

Harvesting box turtles can be especially harmful to the population. The species doesn’t reach sexual maturity until age 10, and nests have a high mortality rate, according to the news release.

“Oklahomans respect and value wildlife, and we don’t appreciate those who would seek to exploit our vulnerable wildlife populations for their corrupt greed,” U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said in the release. “Gangemi flagrantly violated state and federal laws by illegally collecting and exporting box turtles to the black market.”

Winston Holliday, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Gangemi in South Carolina, said he was aware of the turtle harvest in Oklahoma while working on the case in the Southeast. But the decision was made to have federal prosecutors in the Midwest make the case there, he said.

Holliday said the prosecution in Oklahoma produced a “great result.’’

“He had a web that covered to the Midwest to here (in South Carolina) and up to New Jersey,” Holliday told McClatchy.

The State reporter Sammy Fretwell contributed to this story.

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Chacour Koop is a Real-Time reporter based in Kansas City. Previously, he reported for the Associated Press, Galveston County Daily News and Daily Herald in Chicago.
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