LOS ANGELES – A Monterey Park man was taken into custody late this morning on federal smuggling charges stemming from the seizure of a package that contained three king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters.
Rodrigo Franco, 34, was arrested this morning by special agents with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement after he was named in a criminal complaint filed on July 21.
Franco, who is charged with one count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States, is expected to make his initial appearance this afternoon in United States District Court.
According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, United States Customs and Border Protection on March 2 inspected a package sent from Hong Kong and discovered three live king cobra snakes – a protected and highly venomous reptile – each of which was approximately two-feet long. In addition to the three snakes, the parcel being sent through the United States Postal Service contained three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles.
On the same date, Franco also mailed six protected turtles – desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles and ornate box turtles – from the United States to Hong Kong, but that shipment also was intercepted by the USFWS.
Because of the danger associated with the cobras, the snakes were seized from the package that had come from Hong Kong. The United States Postal Inspection Service made a controlled delivery of the soft-shelled turtles to Franco’s residence. Immediately after the package was delivered, agents with the USFWS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations executed a search warrant at the residence.
While executing the search warrant, agents found the package that originated in Hong Kong in the children’s bedroom, in which, they also discovered a tank containing a live baby Morelet’s crocodile and tanks containing alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamond back terrapins – all of which are protected species, according to the affidavit.
During a subsequent interview with authorities, Franco admitted that he had previously received 20 king cobras in two prior shipments – but he said all of those snakes had died in transit.
During the ensuing investigation, authorities obtained evidence from Franco’s phone that revealed messages in which Franco and an individual in Asia discussed shipping turtles and snakes between the United States and Asia. According to the complaint, the messages indicate that Franco had previously received live cobras from his contact in Asia and was going to give five of the snakes to a relative of his contact.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The smuggling charge alleged in the complaint carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The prosecution is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Erik M. Silber of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.