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Friday, September 29, 2017

Foreign National Pleads Guilty to Smuggling Rhinoceros Horn

Michael Hegarty, 40, an Irish national, pled guilty today in U.S. District Court in Miami to fraudulently facilitating the transportation and concealment of a Libation Cup carved from an endangered rhinoceros horn, that was illegally smuggled from the United States to Great Britain.


The guilty plea was announced today by Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg for the Southern District of Florida, and Ed Grace, Acting Assistant Director of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The prosecution of Hegarty is part of Operation Crash, a continuing effort by the Special Investigations Unit of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement in coordination with the Department of Justice to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns.


The Endangered Species Act (ESA), was enacted by Congress to conserve endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The ESA makes it unlawful to knowingly deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce, by any means whatsoever and in the course of a commercial activity, endangered species, including rhinoceros; and to sell and offer to sell endangered species of wildlife, including rhinoceros, in interstate and foreign commerce.


According to the Plea Agreement, a Joint Factual Statement filed by the parties, other court records, and statements at the hearing, in mid-April 2012, Hegarty and his co-conspirator joined a Miami resident to attend an auction in Rockingham, North Carolina where the co-conspirator functioned as the bidder on behalf of the three individuals, and made the winning bid for a rhinoceros horn libation cup. Hegarty and his co-conspirator received the rhinoceros horn libation cup in Florida. The co-conspirator then smuggled the libation cup out of the United States in his luggage, and failed to declare the export of the rhino horn libation cup as required by law to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and neither applied for nor obtained the permit required under the Endangered Species Act.


The co-conspirator, along with two other Irish nationals, was arrested by Metropolitan Police in London, while attempting to sell the same rhinoceros horn libation cup to a Hong Kong native. Scientific analysis conducted at the National Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon determine that the Libation Cup was in fact fashioned from the horn of an ESA-protected Great Indian Rhinoceros.


Hegarty was arrested on the charges through an INTERPOL Red Notice and extradited to the United States from Belgium. His co-conspirator was convicted on unrelated charges in England, is currently incarcerated there, and is still wanted to face wildlife trafficking charges in the Southern District of Florida.


“Trafficking in endangered and threatened species is illegal,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Greenberg. “Together with our law enforcement partners, we will strictly enforce the laws that protect our environment and our wildlife. The international community strongly supports these enforcement efforts and is capable of finding and holding accountable these criminals wherever they attempt to hide.”


“By trafficking in wildlife products, such as items made from a rhinoceros horn, smugglers are fueling the illegal trade in endangered wildlife, which may ultimately lead to the species extinction,” said Ed Grace, Acting Assistant Director of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I am proud of our special agents who exposed this complex, international scheme that spanned many international borders. This case showed the direct link between wildlife trafficking and transnational organized crime and reinforced our commitment to continue working with U.S. and international partners to pursue these criminals who profit from the illegal trade in wildlife.”


Hegarty will be sentenced by the Honorable Donald M. Middlebrooks, United States District Court Judge, who accepted the guilty plea. Sentencing will be held  Nov. 14, 2017 at 2:20 p.m. Hegarty faces a maximum penalty of up to ten years in prison, followed by a term of supervised release of up to three years, and a maximum fine of $250,000, or up to twice the gross gain. 


The investigation is being handled by the FWS Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section.  The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.


A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida at www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.

Press Release Number: 
Updated October 3, 2017