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Man charged after Torrance mail inspectors link him to turtle trafficking case

Eastern box turtle
schizoform / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Eastern box turtle

A 53-year-old man has been charged with turtle trafficking after wildlife inspectors at a Torrance mail facility intercepted packages containing protected eastern box turtles allegedly addressed to one of the defendant's aliases in China.   

Sai Keung Tin, of Hong Kong, was charged Friday in Los Angeles federal court with four counts of exporting merchandise contrary to law, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Tin was arrested Feb. 25 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and made his initial appearance the following day in federal court in Brooklyn. His arraignment is expected in the coming weeks in downtown Los Angeles.

According to the indictment, Tin in June knowingly and illegally aided in the exportation of 40 eastern box turtles to be sent from the United States to China. Wildlife inspectors at an international mail facility in Torrance intercepted four packages addressed to "Ji Yearlong,'' a name believed to be one of Tin's aliases, and which were to be shipped to Tin's home in Hong Kong, according to court documents.

Tin allegedly falsely labeled the packages containing the protected turtles as containing almonds and chocolate cookies.   

Three of the packages contained between eight and 12 live eastern box turtles each -- all bound in socks, according to court papers. The fourth package contained seven live eastern box turtles and one that had died. A special agent also searched property records and learned that the name listed as the sender on each of the packages was fake, federal prosecutors said.   

The eastern box turtle is a subspecies of the common box turtle and is native to forested regions of the eastern United States with some isolated populations in the Midwest. Turtles with colorful markings are especially prized in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, particularly in China and Hong Kong.

The animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become threatened with extinction. The United States and China are parties to this agreement, prosecutors said.

An affidavit filed in the case alleges that Tin was associated with Kang Juntao, 27, of Hangzhou City, China, a convicted felon and international turtle smuggler. Kang recruited turtle poachers and suppliers in the United States to ship turtles domestically to middlemen, who would then bundle the turtles into other packages and export them to Hong Kong.   

The turtles were bound in socks to protect their shells and so they could not move and alert authorities, federal officials said.   

Court papers allege that from June 2017 to December 2018, Kang caused at least 1,500 turtles -- with a market value exceeding $2.25 million -- to be shipped from the United States to Hong Kong. Middlemen shipped around 46 packages containing turtles from New York and New Jersey, which were routed
through an international mail facility at JFK, to addresses in Hong Kong, allegedly including Tin's.

Kang pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge after his extradition from Malaysia in 2019, and later was sentenced to 38 months in federal prison. Since Kang's arrest, prosecution, and conviction, law enforcement has continued to intercept packages addressed to Tin and others, court papers state.

If convicted as charged, Tin would face up to 10 years in federal prison for each count, prosecutors noted.

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