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Environmental Crimes Bulletin October 2023 Week 4

In this issue:

United States v. Western River Assets, LLC, et al., No. 3:23-CR-00005 (S.D.W.V.), AUSA Erik Goes and SAUSA Perry McDaniel

On October 17, 2023, David K. Smith, River Marine Enterprises, LLC, and Western River Assets, LLC, pleaded guilty to violating the Rivers and Harbors Act for discharging refuse into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. §§ 407, 411). Sentencing is scheduled for February 26, 2024

Western River Assets owned a towboat, the Gate City, that docked along the West Virginia shore of the Big Sandy River from approximately 2010 until January 2018. River Marine Enterprises operated the vessel during this time. Smith was the sole owner of both River Marine Enterprises and Western River Assets, and responsible for operating both companies.

On January 10, 2018, the Gate City sank while docked, discharging oil and other substances into the Big Sandy River. The oil left a sheen on the river and oily deposits beneath the surface. As a result of this incident, officials with the City of Kenova, West Virginia, were forced to close the city’s municipal drinking water intake for three days while various regulatory agencies responded to clean up the spill.

Following an inspection of the vessel in November 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an administrative order in December 2017, notifying Smith that the Gate City presented an “imminent and substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the environment because of a threatened discharge of oil from the vessel.” The administrative order required Smith to remove all oil and hazardous materials from the Gate City prior to January 31, 2018. Unfortunately, the vessel sank days before this deadline, and before Smith had complied with the order.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division, the U.S. Coast Guard, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia National Guard and other responders conducted the investigation.

United States v. Noel Quintana, et al., No. 1:21-CR-20245 (S.D. Fla.), ECS Senior Counsel Elinor Colbourn, AUSA Katie Guthrie, ECS Paralegal Chloe Harris, and Law Clerk Nate Borrelli

On October 19, 2023, Noel Quintana and Kelsy Hernandez Quintana pleaded guilty to conspiracy, smuggling, and Lacey Act violations for utilizing multiple schemes to evade paying duties on hardwood plywood imported from China (18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 545; 16 U.S.C. §§ 3372(f)(1), 3373(d)(3)(A)(i)). Sentencing is scheduled for January 12, 2024.

For more than five years, the Quintanas and co-conspirators made false statements to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service personnel about the country of origin, country of harvest, genus, and species of plywood shipments they imported into the United States. Following the execution of a search warrant at the Quintana’s place of business in January 2021, they fled to Montenegro. Officials extradited them to the United States in October 2022.

The total loss of duties owed on the illegally imported wood products was approximately $42 million. The plywood’s market value was between $25 million and $65 million.

Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation, with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, and the U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Health Investigation Service.

United States v. Alain Armando Hernandez, et al., No. 22-CR-20535 (S.D. Fla.), AUSA Tom Watts-FitzGerald

 Between October 19 and November 7, 2023, the court sentenced the final three defendants in this case involving Migratory Bird Treaty Act violations (16 U.S.C. §§ 703, 706, 707(b)(2), (d)). A total of ten defendants pleaded guilty to trafficking in migratory birds as a result of Operation Ornery Birds II.

 On October 19, 2023, Alain Armando Hernandez was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine, complete a three-year term of probation and perform 150 hours of community service. Daniel Hernandez Matos was sentenced to four months’ incarceration, followed by one year of supervised release. Conrado Torres Aleman will pay a $3,000 fine and complete a six-month term of probation.

From May 2020 through October 2022, the defendants acquired protected birds through a variety of means, including using baited bird traps throughout the Miami region. Among the species they collected and sold were Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Painted Buntings, Northern Cardinals, and Lazuli Buntings, all of which are highly prized for their colorful plumage and singing abilities. They bartered with, purchased from, and sold the birds to people throughout the United States using internet sites frequented by traffickers.

Federal and state agents recovered more than 500 illegally taken birds as a result of the operation. They successfully released the majority into the wild, although some of the birds perished.

The U.S. United States Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted the investigation.

United States v. Keith J. Martin, No. 23-CR-00040 (E.D. Va.), AUSA Joseph Kosky

On October 26, 2023, a court sentenced Keith J. Martin to four months’ incarceration, followed by three years’ supervised release for violating the Lacey Act by illegally harvesting striped bass (16 U.S.C. §§ 3372 (a)(2)(A), 3373(d)(3)(A)).

Working as a licensed commercial fisherman, Martin routinely violated Virginia state law while harvesting striped bass from Virginia waters. Between 2018 and 2020, Martin took bass in excess of his quota, failed to report the bass he took, and completed at least one sale with a commercial purchaser without using a properly certified scale.

Between 2018 and 2019, Martin’s quota for striped bass was 4,000 pounds. Investigators determined that Martin sold more than 6,000 pounds of striped bass to a single seafood company in Maryland in 2018 and 4,300 pounds to the same company in 2019. During this period, Martin illegally harvested and sold close to 13,000 pounds of striped bass, with a commercial value of approximately $37,000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.

United States v. Sarkon Y. Hanna, No. 2:23-CR-01879 (S.D. Calif.), AUSA Melanie Pierson

On October 26, 2023, Sarkon Y. Hanna pleaded guilty to smuggling three baby monkeys into the United States from Mexico (18 U.S.C. § 545). Sentencing is scheduled for January 19, 2024. The Mexican spider monkey is an endangered species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Hanna did not possess the documents required to import these animals into the United States legally.

On August 14, 2023, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers stopped a man and woman attempting to drive a van into the United States from Mexico. During an initial inspection, a CBP officer discovered an animal carrier hidden behind the rear seat that contained live monkeys. The CBP officer referred the occupants and vehicle for a secondary examination. Officers found a total of three live, baby spider monkeys hidden in the van. The officers seized the monkeys and placed them in quarantine.

The Department of Homeland Security Investigations and Customs and Border Protection conducted the investigation.

United States v. Fiona Skye McKenna, No. 23-CR-02249 (S.D. Calif.), AUSA Melanie Pierson 

On October 30, 2023, Fiona Skye McKenna, a project manager for a property developer, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act for falsifying permits (33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a),1319(c)(2)(A))

McKenna was employed as a Project Manager by a property development firm. Her responsibilities included obtaining all necessary permits for the company. One of McKenna’s projects was known as the International Industrial Park project, located in the Otay Mesa area. In order to proceed with the project, the company intended to place fill dirt into Johnson Canyon Creek. The Creek flowed into the Otay River, which flowed into the San Diego Bay – a water of the United States. McKenna submitted an application for a “401” permit to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, and a “404” application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to place fill dirt, rock and sand into the Creek. Instead of waiting for the paperwork to be processed, she decided to submit information on those applications copied from other previously approved permits issued for similar work.

In October 2022, she received a grading permit from the San Diego County Land Development Office. As a result, between November 2022 and February 2023, the company discharged fill, dirt, rocks, and sand into portions of Johnson Canyon Creek, utilizing dump trucks and heavy-duty powered shovels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the California State Water Board Office of Enforcement conducted the investigation.

United States v. Clarence Martin, No. 1:23-CR-00031 (E.D. Tex.), AUSA Joe Batte with assistance from ECS Senior Trial Attorney Stephen DaPonte

On October 31, 2023, a court sentenced Clarence Martin to complete a one-year term of probation. Martin pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act for killing an American Alligator (16 U.S.C. §§ 1538 (a)(1)(G) and 1540 (b)(1)).

On October 12, 2021, a concerned citizen sent local game wardens a video of a live alligator with its tail removed on the side of a road, and directions for its location. Inspectors located a 9'6" alligator with its tail removed and an apparent bullet hole on the alligator's snout. With no additional information to go on, a game warden created an Operation Game Thief poster/ad and posted it on social media. Within hours of the posting wardens received information that Martin was responsible for killing the alligator and removing its tail. Upon questioning, Martin admitted he killed the animal.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the investigation.

Environmental Crimes Bulletin

Updated February 8, 2024