St. Petersburg man pleads guilty in case involving protected plants

By Times Staff
Published September 29, 2005

TAMPA - A St. Petersburg man pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday after he was caught illegally possessing internationally protected plants, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.

Ralph Edward Williamson, 50, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tampa to possessing more than 48 plants known as cycads that he knew had been traded in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. That's a treaty that the United States and more than 150 other countries follow to protect certain animal and plant species against overexploitation.

A federal grand jury charged Williamson in March with conspiring to violate the Endangered Species Act, committing false statements, importing plants contrary to law and violating the Plant Protection and Quarantine requirements. He was also charged with two counts of smuggling and two misdemeanor counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Since 2001, he was accused of harboring cycads from one or more of these countries: South Africa, Australia, Ecuador and Colombia. Cycads, which resemble palms, are primitive-looking plants whose ancestors date back more than 200-million years. Certain species face extinction.