Reptile Dealer Arrested On Lacey Act And Firearms Charges
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Middle District of Georgia
Indictment unsealed today in USAO-MDGA Valdosta Division case
VALDOSTA, Ga. – A reptile dealer, with a residence in Valdosta, Georgia, appeared in Columbia, South Carolina, federal court on Wednesday, March 31, for his initial appearance on Lacey Act and firearms charges arising from an indictment unsealed today in the Middle District of Georgia, said Acting U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia (USAO-MDGA).
Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Dalzell (Sumter County), South Carolina, was charged by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Georgia on March 9, for trafficking vipers and turtles, as well as illegally possessing two firearms. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents arrested Rance on Tuesday, March 30, on a warrant to face the charges in the Middle District of Georgia. The maximum sentence under the Lacey Act and firearms charges are five and 10 years of imprisonment, respectively, and a $250,000 fine for each charge.
The indictment alleges that in February 2018, Rance sold 16 spotted turtles and three eastern box turtles to a buyer in Florida and shipped the reptiles from Valdosta, Georgia, in a package falsely labeled as containing tropical fish and lizards. The indictment also alleges that in May 2018, Rance sent a second package to Florida with a label stating that it contained harmless reptiles and ball pythons when in reality, Rance had shipped 15 Gaboon vipers, which are venomous snakes. Finally, the indictment alleges that on May 11, 2018, law enforcement authorities executed a search warrant at Rance’s Valdosta home, where they recovered a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. It is a violation of federal law for a convicted felon to possess a firearm, and Rance has a prior felony conviction.
An indictment is a set of allegations based upon a finding of probable cause by a grand jury. A defendant is presumed innocent until convicted.
“Illegal wildlife trafficking can have devastating effects, and our office will prosecute individuals found in violation of the Lacey Act and other environmental protection laws,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Leary. “I want to thank the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ATF, and the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources for their work investigating this case.”
“Rance’s reckless shipment of venomous snakes and illegal possession of firearms demonstrate the dangers of wildlife trafficking,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). “I applaud our federal and state law enforcement partners for keeping the public and delivery couriers safe.”
“Wildlife trafficking is a serious crime that impacts species at home and abroad,” said Special Agent in Charge Stephen Clark for the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement. “I would like to thank the Justice Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources for their assistance with this case. Together, we have stopped highly venomous snakes, and our nation’s own wildlife, from being smuggled.”
The federal Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits, among other things, transporting wildlife in interstate commerce if the wildlife was illegal under state laws. The indictment against him alleges that Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. It also is a Lacey Act violation to falsely label a package containing wildlife.
The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) is a semi-aquatic turtle native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is endemic to forested regions of the East Coast and Midwest. Collectors prize both species in the domestic and foreign pet trade market. The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) is native to central Sub-Saharan Africa. Its venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness or death in humans.
The case is being investigated by USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Florida, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as part of Operation Middleman. The operation focuses on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China.
Trial Attorney Ryan Connors of ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonja Profit of the Middle District of Georgia are prosecuting the case, with support from Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday of the District of South Carolina. Questions can be directed to Pamela Lightsey, Public Information Officer, United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 621-2603 or Melissa Hodges, Public Affairs Director (Contractor), United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 765-2362.
An indictment is only an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven otherwise before a jury at trial.
Updated April 2, 2021