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Environmental Crimes Bulletin March 2024 Week 4

In this issue:

United States v. Savannah Nicole Valdez, No. 4:23-CR-00453 (S.D. Tex.), AUSA Steven Schammel

On March 18, 2024, a court sentenced Savannah N. Valdez to 15 months’ incarceration, followed by three years’ supervised release for selling a spider monkey on Craigslist in violation of the Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3372(a)(1), 3373(d)(1)(b)). Valdez was previously sentenced in February 2023 to time-served, followed by two years’ supervised release, which included one year of home confinement. In that case, she pleaded guilty to fleeing from federal law enforcement officers, and to smuggling a spider monkey into the United States and evading an immigration checkpoint (18 U.S.C. §§ 545, 758).

On March 21, 2022, Valdez attempted to enter the United States in Brownsville, Texas. Law enforcement observed a wooden box with holes inside her vehicle, which Valdez said contained beer she had purchased in Mexico. However, when authorities opened the box, they discovered a live spider monkey and referred Valdez to secondary inspection. Valdez refused to comply with their instructions, instead speeding off, running traffic lights and nearly colliding with officers and other vehicles.

Later that day, agents found multiple online postings advertising the spider monkey for sale that included Valdez’s phone number. Valdez turned herself in shortly thereafter, and authorities placed the monkey in an animal shelter in the Central Florida area.

During the summer of 2023 authorities received information about several advertisements posted to Craigslist offering protected birds for sale including keel-billed toucans and yellow-headed amazon parrots. The contact number listed for the advertisements was the same that Valdez used in the prior case. The subsequent undercover operation involved the sale of two keel-billed toucans and a Mexican spider monkey. Officials with zoos in Texas are now caring for these animals.

As a result of these new charges, the court revoked the original term of supervised release and ordered Valdez to serve an additional month of incarceration, following the 15 months ordered in March 2024.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement conducted the investigation with assistance from Homeland Security Investigations and the Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General.

United States v. Sean Coiteux, et al., No. 3:21-CR-05184 (W.D. Wash.), AUSAs Seth Wilkinson and Cindy Chang, and RCEC Karla Gebel Perrin

On March 18, 2024, Sean Coiteux, the co-owner of diesel truck maintenance and sales companies, pleaded guilty to tampering with pollution control software on hundreds of diesel trucks in violation of the Clean Air Act (CAA) (42 U.S.C. § 7413 (c)(2)(C)). Sentencing is scheduled for June 24, 2024.

Coiteux and his wife, Tracy, own Racing Performance Maintenance Northwest (RPMN) and RPM Motors and Sales NW (RPM). RPMN pleaded guilty to violating the CAA, and RPM pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act.

Between January 2018 and January 2021, Sean Coiteux directed employees to delete pollution control software and devices on diesel trucks they sold or serviced. Coiteux’s companies charged between $1,000 and $2,000 for this work. Over a three-year period, the defendants serviced close to 375 diesel trucks, earning a total of $538,477 in fees.

Tracy Coiteux is scheduled for trial to begin on May 20, 2024.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division conducted the investigation.

United States v. Shane M. Trout, No. 1:21-CR-00032 (W.D. Pa.), AUSA Paul Sellers

On March 18, 2024, a court sentenced Shane M. Trout to pay a $3,000 fine and forfeit his license to harvest ginseng for a three-year period. Trout plead guilty to violating the Lacey Act for illegally purchasing and transporting American ginseng (16 U.S.C. §§ 3372(a)(2)(B), 3373(d)(l)(B)).

In January 2021, Trout submitted Ginseng Dealer Quarterly Reports claiming he purchased legally harvested ginseng from Pennsylvania. In fact, the ginseng he bought came from  Ohio and was not accompanied by the required import certificates.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.

United States v. Didion Milling, Inc., et al., No. 3:22-CR-00055 (W.D. Wisc.), ECS Trial Attorney Charlie Lord, ECS Senior Trial Attorney RJ Powers, ECS Trial Attorney Joel LaBissonniere, ECS Paralegals Chloe Harris and Jillian Grubb, and ECS Victim Witness Coordinator Angela Green

On March 19, 2024, a court sentenced Didion Milling, Inc., (DMI) Supervisor Nicholas Booker to complete a three-year term of probation. Booker pleaded guilty to one count of falsifying cleaning records and one count of falsifying environmental records (18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(3)). Booker is the final defendant to be sentenced in this case involving a catastrophic explosion that killed and wounded several DMI employees.

DMI owned and operated a corn mill in Cambria, Wisconsin. Corn dust is combustible and can fuel explosions if exposed to an ignition source and mixed with a sufficient concentration of air. Regulators required the company to operate “baghouses,” (which are equipment designed to prevent particulate matter, such as corn dust, from being released into the environment) at the corn mill. From at least 2015 to May 2017, DMI employees, including shift workers and shift superintendents, made false entries in the mill’s baghouse logs, disguising data meant to monitor and document whether the baghouse equipment was properly filtering particulates from the air.

The company was also required under Occupational Safety and Health Act safety standards to develop and implement a housekeeping program to reduce the accumulation of fugitive grain dust within its corn mill. DMI maintained a “master sanitation schedule” logbook listing each of the required dust cleanings and the specific dates by which the cleanings were supposed to be completed. The sanitation logbook contained spaces for employees to record that the dust cleanings had been performed and that documentations procedures had been followed.

On May 19, 2017, employees falsely initialed, signed, and dated entries in the sanitation logbook for the week of May 1 through May 7, 2017, giving the appearance that the required dust cleanings were performed when they had not been. The company provided the sanitation logbook containing the false May 2017 dust cleaning entries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during its investigation of the explosion.

A court sentenced DMI on January 25, 2024, to pay a $1,000,000 fine, complete a five-year term of probation, and pay $10,250,000 in restitution. The company pleaded guilty to falsifying OSHA and EPA records (18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(3)). The following employees were sentenced between February 15 – 16, 2024: Former Environmental Manager Joseph Winch was sentenced to two years’ incarceration, followed by two years of supervised release. Winch also will pay a $10,000 fine. Former Shift Superintendent Joel Niemeyer was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and complete a one-year term of probation. Supervisor Michael Bright was sentenced to complete a one-year term of probation. Vice President Shawn Mesner was ordered to serve 24 months’ incarceration, followed by one year of supervised release, and pay a $5,000 fine. Food Safety Superintendent Derrick Clark will serve 24 months’ incarceration, followed by one year of supervised release. Shift Supervisor Anthony Hess was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and complete a one-year term of probation.

A jury convicted Mesner and Clark in October 2023 for their role in a catastrophic explosion in May 2017 at the DMI corn milling facility in Cambria, Wisconsin, that killed five employees and wounded others. Specifically, Mesner was convicted of a fraud conspiracy and conspiracy to commit federal offenses (18 U.S.C §§ 1349, 371). Clark was convicted of conspiracy to commit federal offenses, document falsification in contemplation of a federal investigation, false entries in a record within the U.S. EPA’s jurisdiction, and obstruction of an agency proceeding (18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1519, 1001 (a)(3), 1505). Niemeyer and Winch pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsifying documents in matters under the jurisdiction of OSHA and EPA (18 U.S.C. § 371). Hess pleaded guilty to obstructing an OSHA proceeding by making false statements to OSHA and the Department of Labor (18 U.S.C. § 1505). Bright and Booker pleaded guilty to making false statements (18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(3)).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted the investigation.

United States v. Travis J. Branson, et al., No. 9:23-CR-00055 (D. Mont.), AUSAs Randy Tanner and Ryan Weldon

On March 20, 2024, Travis J. Branson pleaded guilty to conspiracy and violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Lacey Act. Branson and co-defendant Simon Paul (a fugitive) unlawfully killed bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation and elsewhere in Montana, Idaho, and Nevada, and sold them on the black market (18 U.S.C. § 371; 16 U.S.C. §§ 668(a); 3372(a)(1), 3373(d)(1)(B)). Sentencing is scheduled for July 31, 2024.

Between January 2015 and March 2021, the defendants conspired to illegally kill bald and golden eagles on the Reservation and offer eagle feathers and parts for sale to domestic U.S. and international buyers. Branson traveled from Washington to the Reservation and arranged for Paul to shoot and ship the eagles for him. Confederated Salish & Kootenai tribal authorities tipped off Fish and Wildlife agents to the defendants’ activity.

In total, Paul and Branson killed approximately 3,600 birds, including eagles. They then sold eagle feathers and parts on the black market for significant sums of money across the United States and elsewhere.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.

Updated April 19, 2024