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Press Release

New York Man Charged with Smuggling Protected Turtles

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

A federal grand jury charged a New York man today in a three-count indictment alleging he illegally shipped eastern box turtles and three-toed box turtles, both protected wildlife species, from the United States to China for the global pet trade black market.

Russell Milis, 26, of Brooklyn, is charged with two counts of smuggling goods from the United States and one count of violating the Lacey Act. 

The indictment alleges that, between November 2019 and November 2020, Milis exported turtles without obtaining the necessary license or declaring the wildlife to customs officials as required by the Endangered Species Act. Both species of turtles are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become threatened with extinction. The United States and China are parties to this agreement. The indictment alleges that Milis shipped the turtles to Asia without the mandatory CITES permits.

The indictment also charged Milis with shipping the turtles in packages that were falsely labeled as to their contents in violation of the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits, among other things, shipping wildlife, fish or plants in interstate or international commerce without accurate information as to the contents.

The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is a subspecies of the common box turtle and is native to forested regions of the eastern United States with some isolated populations in the Midwest. The three-toed box turtle (Terrapene triunguis) is also a subspecies of the common box turtle and is native to woodlands and grasslands in the central and southern United States. Turtles with colorful markings are especially prized in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, particularly in China and Hong Kong, where they can sell for several thousand dollars.

If convicted, Milis faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for each smuggling count and a maximum penalty of five years in prison for the Lacey Act violation. A court could also order a fine of up to the greater of $250,000 or twice the defendant’s financial gain from the criminal activity charged in each count. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement made the announcement.

The USFWS investigated the case, with assistance from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Senior Trial Attorney Ryan Connors and Trial Attorney Elise Kent Bernanke of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section are prosecuting the case, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. 

An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Updated June 5, 2024

Animal Welfare
Press Release Number: 24-703