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Press Release

Connecticut Man Pleads Guilty to Trafficking in Endangered Sperm Whale Teeth

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

John “Jake” Bell, a resident of Lakeville, Connecticut, pleaded guilty today to illegally trafficking teeth from endangered sperm whales. The guilty plea was announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. 

Bell pleaded guilty today in Boston before U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf, for the District of Massachusetts, to one count of wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act. As part of his plea, Bell admitted that in November 2004, while in the Ukraine, he sold approximately 34 sperm whale teeth to a co-conspirator who resided in Nantucket, Massachusetts, for $11,600. Bell shipped the 34 teeth in multiple boxes from the Ukraine to an associate in Connecticut, from where his co-conspirator retrieved them. Bell’s co-conspirator was convicted in 2010, after a jury trial, and sentenced to a 33-month term of imprisonment.

According to the indictment, Bell acquired the teeth and smuggled them into the United States. Bell, who was an artist and scrimshander, carved some of the teeth he sold, but also sold uncarved teeth to customers.  According to papers filed in federal court, between July 2005 and June 2006, Bell smuggled in excess of 49 pounds of sperm whale teeth into the United States, valued in excess of $26,000. Also, according to these filings, between June 2007 and April 2008, Bell sold nine carved teeth to customers in the United States, with a total value of $20,300. 

“Sperm whale teeth can weigh over two pounds each and are alluring to many collectors. But gone are the days when people can buy, sell and trade parts harvested from protected creatures like the sperm whale. This amazing creature is safeguarded from exploitation by federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as international treaties,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that those who attempt to profit from the illegal trade of endangered species will face the consequences for their actions under law.”  

“Federal law provides great protection to the marine mammals that live in our waters," said Director James Landon for NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement (OLE). "OLE is dedicated to enforcing those laws and seeing that those who violate them are held accountable for their illegal actions."

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act protect sperm whales and, among other things, prohibits their parts from being sold in interstate or foreign commerce or imported into the United States without a permit.  In addition, the Lacey Act creates penalties for knowingly trafficking or importing wildlife and parts from wildlife like sperm whales, and United States customs laws prohibit importing merchandise like sperm whale parts knowingly in violation of the law or federal regulations.

The investigation was handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.  The government is represented by Trial Attorneys Erica Pencak and Gary N. Donner of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Updated April 4, 2024

Press Release Number: 18-743