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Undercover pinch puts bite on illegal rattlesnake sales.
By Dan Herbeck | 3/19/2009 | The Buffalo News
Snapping turtles also show up as part of the stock offered by dealers in poisonous reptiles, authorities say, though nowhere near as common as the trade in rattlesnakes.
Emanuele “Manny” Tesoro was an Ontario prison guard with an unusual side job. Police say he collected and traded rattlesnakes.
He drove from his home near Hamilton, Ont., last October, and crossed the border to Niagara Falls for what he thought was a secret meeting with another snake trader in a shopping mall parking lot.
Tesoro traded 33 Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes — which he had in pillowcases — and in return got five Timber rattlesnakes and $1,100 cash. But shortly after that meeting, Tesoro was arrested.
The prison guard was one of about 20 individuals targeted in a lengthy state and federal investigation into the illegal sales of venomous snakes, turtles and other less-than-glamorous creatures.
“Some people are as attracted to venomous snakes as other people are attracted to Labrador retrievers,” said Lt. Richard Thomas, who worked undercover on the case.
Details of the two-year investigation, dubbed “Operation Shellshocked,” are expected to be made public today by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state attorney general’s office, the U. S. attorney’s office, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian agencies.
Investigators who worked on the case said they encountered the following people:
- A man in Newburgh who kept 111 poisonous snakes in his home, where he lived with his wife and their baby.
- A Fishkill man who kept about a dozen venomous tree vipers in his bedroom, although he had been bitten before.
- A Long Island man who allegedly told an investigator he wanted to buy 50,000 snapping turtle hatchlings and sell them to people in China for food.
Why would anyone want to own a deadly poisonous snake?
“I’ve spoken to hundreds of these people. For some of them, it was almost like being in a cult. Some people are just fascinated by venomous snakes,” said Daniel W. Sullivan, an investigator who went undercover for the DEC. “I spoke to one guy who lost a couple of fingers from being bitten, but he still had an affinity for snakes.”
DEC agents who went undercover in the probe found a surprisingly active black market for poisonous snakes, various species of turtles and other protected species.
Law enforcement officials said they found Web sites and blogs where people make arrangements to buy and sell venomous snakes, sometimes for thousands of dollars. The illegal snake trade can be as lucrative as drug-dealing, but without the risk of going to prison for 10 or 15 years, investigators said.
At least two people from Western New York are charged in the case, authorities said. People from several other states are also charged, and a number of people are being targeted in ongoing investigations.
Several reptile and amphibian species could disappear in New York State if commercial trafficking is not stopped, according to Thomas and Capt. Michael Van Durme.
“This illegal trafficking has really increased in the past few years, in New York and other states, with the help of the Internet,” Thomas said. “One of the intents of this investigation was to bring public awareness to the issue that some of these species are in danger of disappearing from our state.”
Some snakes can be legally sold and traded on the Internet or at “herp shows” — similar to gun shows — held across the country, authorities said.
But others—such as the rattlers traded by Tesoro to an undercover DEC agent — are protected and cannot be trafficked.
Tesoro faces both state and federal charges, accused of trafficking in endangered species. Ontario police have also charged Tesoro.
According to court papers, the Tesoro investigation began in February 2008 when Sullivan spotted an ad on a Web site seeking “trustworthy Americans” willing to send venomous snakes to Ontario.
Acting undercover, Sullivan contacted Tesoro, 42, who had placed the ad. Tesoro told the undercover officer that he worked as a corrections officer and also “sells snakes on the side,” police said.
Tesoro allegedly told Sullivan he is aware that some of the snakes are endangered species and there could be “huge fines” if he was caught.
Sullivan arranged a trade of several rattlers with Tesoro in Niagara Falls May 28. He was not arrested until the October incident, when he allegedly arrived with 33 rattlesnakes.
“He pleaded not guilty. None of the animals in this case died. He took good care of them,” said one of Tesoro’s attorneys, Kimberly A. Schechter of the federal public defenders office.
Charges against Tesoro are still pending in federal court, state court and Ontario’s courts. Prosecutors are Paul F. McCarthy, an assistant state attorney general, and MaryEllen Kresse of the U. S. attorney’s office.