Back in January 2007, Michael Vincent Johnson returned a phone call from a guy from New York who said he had live turtles to sell. Johnson told the guy he’d buy every turtle he could get. Later that year, the guy arrived at Johnson’s business—Turtle Deluxe, in Millington on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—with 835 pounds of live common snapping turtles and 20 painted turtles. Johnson bought the bunch.
The guy from New York wasn’t a turtle trapper, though. He was New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Investigator Daniel Sullivan, working undercover. Later, in 2008, Johnson bought 80 live turtles from another ostensible New York turtle trapper. That guy, though, was actually U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement Special Agent Randy Cottrell, also working undercover.
Just like turtle trappers catch live snappers, Cottrell and Sullivan trapped Johnson.
Fast-forward to Jan. 23, 2012, and Johnson is pleading guilty in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, in Buffalo, to attempted trafficking in prohibited wildlife, which is illegal under the federal Lacey Act. The snappers he purchased from the undercover agents were “prohibited wildlife” because they were caught in New York, where live trapping of common snapping turtles has been illegal since 2006.
In total, Johnson paid Sullivan and Cottrell $2,237.20 for 1,532 pounds of contraband turtles, which he killed and cleaned and then sold the meat for $8,456.64, according to his plea agreement. That’s a tidy profit. At his sentencing, scheduled for May, Johnson’s penalties could be costly, as he is facing a possible one-year prison sentence, a $100,000 fine, or both. His legal fees may be prodigious too; his attorney, James P. Harrington of Buffalo, is a well-established member of the criminal-defense bar there.
Harrington did not return a phone message seeking comment, and Johnson could not be reached for this article. When City Paper first wrote about Johnson’s troubles—shortly after a January 2009 federal raid on Turtle Deluxe (“Fear the Turtle,” March 18, 2009)—attempts to talk with him in person were rebuffed. An unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Kent County Commissioner in 2006, Johnson was far from cordial in fielding questions about the raid.
The day after City Paper published the story about the Turtle Deluxe raid, authorities in New York held a press conference announcing “Operation Shellshock,” an effort to crack down on black-market trading in protected turtles, rattlesnakes, and salamanders (“Turtle Take-Down,” March 25, 2009). The raid on Turtle Deluxe, it turned out, was part of that operation. In all, according to an e-mail from DEC spokesperson Richard Georgeson, “31 individuals or companies were charged with wildlife crimes” in the operation, and 29 of them “pleaded guilty in court,” while “two cases were referred to the federal government” for prosecution. It is unclear who other than Johnson has been facing federal charges; Georgeson referred questions to Barbara Burns, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo, who did not respond to an e-mail requesting information about the other case.
Burns was, however, forthcoming in sharing Johnson’s plea agreement and a copy of the criminal information filed against him. Under the agreement, Johnson gave a total of $20,000 to support turtle research at three New York conservation organizations: the Buffalo Zoo, the Teatown Lake Reservation, and the Tifft Nature Preserve.
A recent phone call to Turtle Deluxe was answered by Dave Bishel, who says Johnson sold the business since his legal troubles arose; Bishel now manages the operation. “It’s a new industry for me and my partner,” he says, adding that it looks to be “an excellent growth opportunity.” Bishel explains that Turtle Deluxe still buys live turtles from trappers “from a multitude of states,” and that the trappers he deals with know “not to bring them to me” unless they are caught legally. “There’s a lot of scrutiny on this business right now,” Bishel continues, but he says that snappers are “definitely harvestable” and that the population “needs to be maintained with appropriate legislation.”
In Maryland, regulation of commercial snapping-turtle trapping is “pretty narrow,” says Sarah Widman, an assistant director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Service. Commercial trappers can’t take turtles that are less than 11 inches long, they must use traps that have floats, they can’t take them from non-tidal waters, they must have a permit and report how many they take, and, in Charles County, they can’t trap snapping turtles between April 15 and May 31, Widman explains. In 2011, she continues, 80 permit holders in Maryland reported taking 8,985 turtles weighing 129,591 pounds.
In terms of the health of Maryland’s snapping-turtle population, Widman says, “As far as I know, the numbers are pretty steady and they are pretty prolific.” She adds that “there is definitely a huge market for them in Asia, and there are places in the U.S. where they have turtle soup, especially down South.”
Bishel says that, in his experience, Asian demand is for “live turtles” while “the meat market is pretty much a domestic” phenomenon in the United States, where wholesalers buy turtle meat to sell to restaurants. “The Chinese,” he says, “are doing everything they can to raise their own turtles,” Bishel adds.
Harlon Pearce, a seafood broker in Louisiana who once sued Turtle Deluxe over a business deal gone sour, confirms that “a lot of turtles are being taken in the Midwest and the East Coast,” and that “the Chinese are still paying big money for live snapping turtles. It’s a viable, strong industry.” But he cautions that buyers and trappers need to beware to avoid what happened to Johnson: “The Lacey Act is pretty severe.”