VALDOSTA, Ga. – A Florida reptile dealer pleaded guilty to shipping venomous snakes and turtles from his residence in Valdosta as part of “Operation Middleman,” a multi-agency investigation focusing on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China.
Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Miami, Florida, pleaded guilty to one count Lacey Act Trafficking and one count possession of a firearm by a convicted felon before U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson on Thursday, Nov. 18. The maximum sentence under the Lacey Act and illegal possession of a firearm charges are five and 10 years of imprisonment, respectively, and a $250,000 fine for each charge. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23, 2022, in Valdosta.
“Trafficking venomous or endangered wildlife through the mail clearly puts the delivery couriers and the public at risk and can harm the boxed animals. Our office will enforce Lacey Act law put in place to protect the public and our nation’s wildlife,” said Peter D. Leary, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “Law enforcement agencies working on Operation Middleman are successfully preventing the illegal smuggling of wildlife out of the United States and protecting our citizens.”
According to court documents, Rance agreed to ship three eastern box turtles and 16 spotted turtles to a customer in Florida from his Valdosta residence, knowing that the ultimate destination was China. Rance received a $3,300 payment for the turtles. On Feb. 22, 2018, Rance shipped the 19 turtles, knowing it was illegal to do so, in a box labeled as “Live Tropical Fish.” Again, on May 10, 2018, Rance agreed to send a package to Florida from Valdosta with a label stating that it contained harmless reptiles and ball pythons when, in reality, Rance shipped 15 Gaboon vipers, which are venomous snakes. The vipers’ ultimate destination was China. 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 illegal for Rance, a convicted felon, to possess a firearm.
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. Rance acknowledged that he 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 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as part of Operation Middleman.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonja Profit of the Middle District of Georgia and U.S. Department of Justice Trial Attorney Ryan Conners of the Environmental Crimes Section are prosecuting the case.
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