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Press Release

Pennsylvania Man Sentenced for Trafficking Protected Turtles

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

David Sommers, 64, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to six months imprisonment, three years of supervised release including six months of home detention, and to pay $250,000 in restitution for trafficking protected turtles.

From November 2011 until October 2017, Sommers poached thousands of protected diamondback terrapins and their eggs from coastal marshes in New Jersey and illegally sold the turtles.  A grand jury indicted Sommers on July 10, 2018 for his criminal conduct involving the sale, export and false-labeling of packages containing protected diamondback terrapins.  On Feb. 4, 2019, Sommers pleaded guilty to false-labeling of packages containing protected diamondback terrapins.

“Sommers used a sham business to shamelessly mask an illegal trade in threatened and protected species,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  “The Justice Department and our law enforcement partners will safeguard our nation’s natural resources and biodiversity and prosecute wildlife traffickers to the fullest extent of the law.”

“The defendant had a simple business plan: poach protected turtles and their eggs from their natural habitat, advertise them for sale online and then illegally ship them to customers by concealing the actual contents of the packages,” said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  “Sommers represented himself as a legitimate reptile breeder, when he was in fact endangering the lives of these animals and breaking the law.  Thanks to our partners at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Postal Inspection Service, this defendant will be held responsible for his actions.”

Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are a semi-aquatic species of turtle native to brackish waters in eastern and southern United States.  They are not found in the wild in Pennsylvania, where Sommers resided, but have a dwindling habitat range in neighboring New Jersey.  The terrapins are prized in the reptile pet trade for their unique, diamond-shaped shell markings.  The turtles are protected under New Jersey law and by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The United States, Canada and approximately 181 other countries are signatories to CITES, which provides a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose continued survival is threatened by such trade.  Due to declining populations, CITES listed the diamondback terrapin as threatened in 2013, and New Jersey banned collecting, possessing and transporting them in 2016. 

This case was investigated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service with assistance from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.  It is being prosecuted by trial attorney Ryan Connors of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan E. Burnes.

Updated April 4, 2024

Press Release Number: 19-920