News and Press Releases

Operation Crash’ Targets Trafficking of Endangered Rhino Horns

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 23, 2012

Seven Defendants Arrested, Dozens of Rhino Horns Seized, and Millions of Dollars in Assets Linked to Sale of Endangered Species Taken by Authorities

LOS ANGELES – Seven people have been taken into custody – most recently, one defendant was arrested last night at Los Angeles International Airport – on charges related to the trafficking of endangered black rhinoceros horns. Four of the seven defendants were arrested in the Los Angeles area as part of an investigation called “Operation Crash,” a nationwide, multi-agency effort to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horns.

Last night, federal authorities arrested a Chinese national who allegedly oversaw the shipment of dozens of rhino horns from the United States to China. Jin Zhao Feng was arrested by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after he arrived at LAX on a flight from China.

Last weekend, in a case filed in Los Angeles, members of a U.S.-based trafficking ring that allegedly supplied rhino horns to Feng were arrested – three in Southern California and one in Texas – after being charged with conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Los Angeles, authorities have documented the shipment of rhino horns since 2010, and during the investigation 17 packages were opened pursuant to federal search warrants, which led to the discovery of 37 rhinoceros horns.

“Illegal poaching of rhinos is a cruel and inhumane practice that threatens the very existence of this magnificent African species,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “Documented incidents of the illegal killing of rhinos has increased more than 1,000 percent in the nation of South Africa, and those involved in the trafficking of rhino horns directly support the poaching industry – which is solely concerned with killing these defenseless animals for the purpose of removing their valuable horns. Smugglers are an integral part of this international criminal chain, which is why we continue to target traffickers in the United States who support a heinous industry without any concern for the welfare of this planet’s overall environmental health.”

The five defendants charged in Los Angeles are:

Jin Zhao Feng, 45, of China, who is scheduled to make his initial court appearance this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles;

Vinh “Jimmy” Choung Kha, 49, of Garden Grove, the owner of Win Lee Corporation;

Felix Kha, 26, of Garden Grove, who is Jimmy Kha’s son;

Nhu Mai Thi Nguyen,41, of Highland, the owner of a nail salon where packages containing rhinoceros horns were being mailed; and

Jarrod Wade Steffen, 32, of Hico, Texas, who allegedly supplied the Khas with rhino horns.

During the investigation, authorities seized a significant amount of proceeds allegedly associated with the wildlife trafficking operation. A search of Steffen’s luggage at the Long Beach Airport on February 9 led to the discovery of $337,000 in cash that was concealed in various carry-on bags, including a child’s diaper bag. Federal agents searched the Khas’ business, home and safety deposit boxes last weekend, finding rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches. Approximately $1 million in cash and another $1 million seized in gold ingots was seized.

“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.”

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 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.

“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.”

After their arrests last Saturday, the Khas and Nguyen made their initial court appearances on Tuesday in United States District Court in Los Angeles. Both Khas were ordered detained – held without bond – at least until further proceedings, which are scheduled for Monday afternoon. Nguyen was released on a $50,000 bond. A preliminary hearing for all three of the defendants was scheduled for March 6, and an arraignment was scheduled for March 12.

Steffan made his initial court appearance in Texas on Tuesday. Steffan was ordered detained and is being transported to Los Angeles.

In cases filed by other United States Attorney’s Offices, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Saturday in New Jersey 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. Antiques expert David Hausman was arrested on Saturday in relation to a case filed in federal court in Manhattan that charges him with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction. 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.

Operation Crash is a continuing investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which received assistance from other federal and local law enforcement agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Internal Revenue Service. The investigation is being led by the Special Investigations Unit of the F&WS Office of Law Enforcement and involves a task force of agents focused on rhino trafficking.

The criminal prosecutions are 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.

Release No. 12-030

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