Florida Marine Life Dealers Plead Guilty to Illegal Wildlife Trafficking
Two Florida marine life dealers pled guilty today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow in Key West, Florida, for trafficking wildlife.
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Tracey Dunn, Assistant Director, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, and David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, made the announcement.
Robert V. Kelton, 60, of Hollywood, and Bruce Brande, 59, of Cooper City, pled guilty to conspiring together and with others to transport, sell, receive, acquire, and purchase Live Rock and invertebrates, specifically Ricordea florida, with a fair market value in excess of $350, knowing the wildlife was taken, possessed, transported, sold, in violation of the laws and regulations of the State of Florida, and for knowingly making and submitting false records and accounts for wildlife, by submitting required declarations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which intentionally understated the value of the wildlife, said wildlife having been and intended to be imported, transported, sold, purchased, and received from a foreign country.
According to the information filed against the defendants, a joint factual statement submitted to the Court, and statements in Court, beginning in October 2006, the defendants conspired with different marine life collectors located in the Florida Keys to purchase quantities of live rock with marine life attached to it, such as Ricordea florida, which was illegally harvested and transported from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Live rock is an essential building block of the reef system of the Florida Keys. To conceal the transactions, Kelton produced numerous false invoices through October 2010, reflecting sales of live rock with marine life attached, purportedly imported from Haiti, to the marine life collectors on Grassy Key, to serve as a cover in case questions arose regarding the legality of the products, which were actually harvested from the FKNMS. Records seized by the federal agents reflect $37,108.41 in wholesale sales of live rock with Ricordea and other marine life by Kelton and Brande through the business known as D. R. Imports, Inc. (DRI), a Florida corporation with its principal place of business in Miami. The records also demonstrated that from November 12, 2008 through 2010, 11,567 Ricordea polyps were sold to DRI for a wholesale price totaling $38,637.50, half of that value being attributable to live rock illegally harvested from the FKNMS.
The government’s evidence includes photographs, shipping, and sales records reflecting that from February 2011 through May 2011, Kelton and Brande, shipped and sold in interstate commerce to a dealer in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, large pieces of live rock with a wholesale value of almost $5,000, bearing Ricordea florida and Zoanthus pulchellus which they knew had been illegally harvested from the FKNMS. The live rock was falsely advertised for sale as originating from Haiti. Unknown to the various co-conspirators federal agents had begun to monitor their harvest and sales activities, including covertly recording harvest operations and marking illegally acquired products to trace them through their interstate sales.
Pursuant to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act and the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the NOAA has established regulations governing the conduct of activities within the Sanctuary. Title 15, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 922.163(a)(2) prohibits the removal of, injury to, or possession of coral or live rock. Section 922.163(a)(2)(I) prohibits moving, removing, taking, harvesting, damaging, disturbing, breaking, cutting, or otherwise injuring any living or dead coral or coral formation, or attempting any of these activities.
Florida Administrative Code, Section 68B-42.008, prohibits the harvest of live rock. Florida Statute 370.07 requires that a person who sells salt water marine related wildlife such as Ricordea florida, to hold a State wholesale and retail license. None of the individuals and corporations, including the defendants herein, were authorized to harvest or attempt to harvest any live rock from the FKNMS or State waters during the time period relevant to this Information, or held the marine related wholesale and retail permits required by Florida Statute 370.07
During the period from January 2009 through December 2012, Kelton and Brande made and submitted declarations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Customs and Border Protection which were required by law in order to secure the clearance through those agencies of shipments of marine wildlife imported by and at their direction from the Dominican Republic and Haiti for commercial re-sale. Comparison of the entry documents submitted to the government agencies with records seized from the business premises of DRI pursuant to execution of a federal search warrant revealed a consistent pattern of misrepresentation in the records. By linking and comparing documents related to each transaction (e.g., air waybill, CBP entry, FWS declarations, and commercial invoices), investigators identified importations from the Dominican Republic and Haiti businesses for which a second set of “supplier’s” invoices existed at DRI, reflecting commercial values significantly higher than on the invoices and records submitted by Kelton and Brande on behalf of DRI. The value declared to the federal agencies in the course of the presentation of the importations for clearance was intentionally understated by $352,594.
Sentencing for Kelton and Brande is scheduled for March 23, 2015 at 2:00 p.m. in Key West before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. Kelton and Brande each face possible up to five years in prison on each of the two counts to which they have pled. Additionally, they may be fined up to $250,000 per count of conviction, ordered to make restitution to identifiable victims of the offenses, and placed on supervised release for up to three years per count.
Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, analysts with the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Crime Trade Analyst Team, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement who participated in the long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of marine life resources from the Florida Keys known as Operation Rock Bottom. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.