Feds find 55 turtles illegally smuggled into LAX stuffed in snack food boxes

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Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 5:45 PM
  • courtesy of U.S. Attorney's Office

It's perhaps no surprise that illegal turtle smuggling investigations take a long, long time.

On Friday, however, a year-long federal sting concluded, netting a pair of Japanese tortoise smugglers at LAX.

So far, this doesn't sound as gruesome as the whale meat scandal from last year, where a Santa Monica restaurant and its sushi chef were charged with serving up an endangered mammal.

Still, the details don't sound good.

Federal agents have charged Japanese nationals Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, 49, with illegally importing wildlife. Approximately 55 live turtles were found hidden inside a rash of snack food boxes, which were inside of a suitcase, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Dubbed "Operation Flying Turtle," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation began a year ago when agents learned about the smuggling operation and then later were able to infiltrate the smuggling ring and purchase 10 turtles from someone associated with Yamagami and Ushirozako.

All the turtles and tortoises that agents purchased and uncovered at LAX are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

According to the arrest affidavit, Yamagami told agents that he or someone he sent had traveled from Japan to the United States eight times with live turtles in a suitcase. The turtles were then sold to U.S. customers. Yamagami would then load up with U.S. turtles which are unavailable in Japan and smuggle them in reverse.

The two accused turtle smugglers have so far been denied bail, says the U.S. Attorney's Office, and face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

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