Smuggling Ring Sentenced in Los Angeles for Criminal Trafficking of Endangered Rhinoceros Horn
Vinh Chuong “Jimmy” Kha, 50, and Felix Kha 26, were sentenced today in federal district court in Los Angeles to serve 42 and 46 months, respectively, in prison for crimes related to illegal international trafficking of rhinoceros horn, announced Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice and André Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California.
In addition to the prison sentences, the two defendants were ordered to pay a total of $20,000 in criminal fines and pay a $185,000 tax fraud penalty and assessment. In addition, Jimmy Kha’s Win Lee Corporation was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine. Jimmy and Felix Kha, along with Win Lee Corporation, were also ordered to pay a total of $800,000 in restitution to the Multinational Species Conservation Fund, a statutorily created fund that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to support international efforts to protect and conserve rhinos and other critically endangered species around the world. The defendants previously abandoned their portion of interest in $2 million worth of rhino parts and vehicles seized in the investigation.
The Khas are among several individuals charged so far with federal crimes as a result of “Operation Crash,” an ongoing FWS-led investigation of the black market rhino horn trade named for the term used to describe a herd of rhinoceros.
“The Khas engaged in egregious criminal conduct by taking the horns of a species on the brink of extinction and making millions of dollars in the illegal trade in rhino horns,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Khas sentence sends a strong message that those who violate the law by illegally trading in rhino horns will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
“The Khas’ smuggling operation fueled international demand and played a significant role in driving the price of rhino horn to nearly $25,000 per pound,” said U.S. Attorney Birotte. “It was that rising value of rhino horn that encouraged ruthless poachers to scour the South African wilderness in search of profits. The Khas played a role in pushing species like the African black rhino to the brink of extinction, which is why we aggressively prosecuted this case and sought lengthy prison terms.”
“On average, a rhino is slaughtered in Africa every 11 hours to feed the black market for their horns,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “Criminals in this country who are cashing in on this illegal trade should know that the United States will hold them accountable for their crimes and do everything possible to protect wild populations of rhinos.”
On Sept. 14, 2012, the Khas pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, smuggling, wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act, money laundering and tax fraud, and Win Lee Corporation pleaded guilty to smuggling and wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act. In February 2012, at the time of the arrest of Jimmy and Felix Kha, FWS agents seized rhinoceros mounts and horns, $1 million in cash, approximately $1 million in gold ingots, jewelry, watches and precious stones, a 2009 BMW 759 Li Sedan and a 2008 Toyota Forerunner from the defendants and their co-conspirators. Under the plea agreement, the defendants agreed to the forfeiture of these items, which include nine rhino horns and six rhino feet. Ultimately, prior to sentencing, the defendants formally abandoned all the wildlife and the instrumentalities of the crimes seized from them (such as the vehicles) to the United States. The Khas’ portion of the seized cash and gold, proceeds of their illegal activities, will be used to pay the $800,000 in restitution ordered at sentencing.
Background on Rhinos
With no known predators other than humans, rhinoceros are a prehistoric species and one of the largest herbivores on earth. All rhinoceros species are protected under U.S. and international law, and the black rhinoceros is listed as endangered. Despite national and international protection efforts dating back to 1976, the demand for rhino horn and black market prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to the value that some cultures have placed on the horns for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes. This has led to a decimation of the global rhinoceros population, which has declined by more than 90 percent since 1970. By the peak of the Kha’s wildlife trafficking conspiracy in 2011, 448 wild rhinos had been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone. Between 2007 and the end of 2011, the poaching of wild South African rhinos increased a tragic and astonishing 3,400 percent, rising from a low of 13 animals in 2007 to 448 animals in 2011.
The Criminal Conduct
Over the course of at least two years from January 2010, through February 2012, Jimmy and Felix Kha conspired with individuals throughout the United States to purchase white and black rhinoceros horn despite knowing that these animals were protected by federal law as endangered and threatened species. Although Jimmy Kha paid, on average, between $5,000 to $7,000 per pound of rhinoceros horn, the horn acquired by the defendants had a fair market value of at least $1 million to $2.5 million. Under the plea agreement, the defendants admitted that they purchased the horns in order to export them overseas to be sold and made into libation cups or used for traditional medicine; made illegal payments to Vietnamese customs officials to ensure clearance of horn shipments to that country; and knowingly evaded income taxes owed in 2009 and 2010.
U.S. Attorney Birotte and Assistant Attorney General Moreno commended FWS and its partners for their outstanding work on this investigation. Assisting agencies included the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joseph O. Johns and Dennis Mitchell of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, and Shennie Patel, a Trial Attorney with the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.