Reptile Dealer Sentenced to Prison for Illegally Trafficking Animals, Gun Charges

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

VALDOSTA, Ga. – A Florida reptile dealer caught 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, has been sentenced to prison for violating the Lacey Act and unlawfully possessing firearms.

Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Miami, Florida, was sentenced to serve 33 months in prison on each count concurrently to be followed by three years of supervised release and a $4,300 fine by U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson on Feb. 23, after previously pleading guilty on Nov. 18, 2021, to one count Lacey Act trafficking and one count possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. In addition, Judge Lawson prohibited Rance from possessing or selling wildlife while under supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system.

According to court documents, Rance admitted that on Feb. 22, 2018, he shipped three eastern box turtles and 16 spotted turtles from Valdosta to a customer in Florida, in a package falsely labeled as containing tropical fish and common lizards. He was paid $3,300 for the turtles and knew they were being subsequently trafficked to China. 

Rance further admitted that on May 10, 2018, he shipped 15 Gaboon vipers from Valdosta to Florida. The snakes were worth approximately $900 and also headed to a buyer in China. He falsely labeled the package as containing harmless reptiles and ball pythons. Rance had legally imported 100 Gaboon vipers and other venomous snakes from Africa to Atlanta. He received a special permit to transport the snakes out of Georgia, but he later returned to Valdosta with 16 vipers. 

Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. 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. It is also 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, where they are resold for thousands of dollars. The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) is native to central Sub-Saharan Africa. Its venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness, or death in humans. Authorities intercepted the package containing the vipers to minimize the risk of a bite or escape.

Additionally, Rance acknowledged that he possessed a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun in his Valdosta residence that he was prohibited from owning as a convicted felon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Florida, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducted the investigation as part of Operation Middleman. The operation focused on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China.

Trial Attorney Ryan Connors of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources, Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonja Profit for the Middle District of Georgia prosecuted the case.