Think he's cute? Well, he's also illegal

A Tampa reptile shop owner pleads guilty to conspiracy to smuggle tortoises like this one.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007

TAMPA - The boxes came from Singapore, labeled Star Wars toys.

Instead of receiving a stash of light sabers and galactic hero action figures, federal prosecutors say reptile shop owner Christian Layne Hunter got dozens of illegal tortoises.

Hunter pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to conspiracy to smuggle goods into the United States. He faces a maximum five-year prison sentence.

Hunter, 36, owned and operated Hunter Reptiles in Brooksville in 2002 when prosecutors say the crimes occurred. In May and June of that year, he received three shipments from Singapore with at least 40 Indian Star tortoises and six Burmese Star tortoises.

Neither Hunter nor Assistant Federal Public Defender Jacqueline Simms-Petredis, his attorney, would answer questions after the hearing.

Michael Wells, a Busch Gardens curator not involved with the case, said a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty regulates exchange of the tortoises. The country exporting them must issue permits to legally ship them to the United States, which prosecutors say Hunter did not have.

While Indian Star tortoises are relatively common, Wells said, the Burmese Star tortoises are "critically endangered and very rare and hard to find." China uses them for medicinal purposes, which contributes to the strain on the species' survival, Wells said.

"They're kind of tricky to take care of," he said, noting that they have special dietary needs. "They're not a beginner tortoise."

He did not know the monetary value of the reptiles. Attorneys did not disclose it in court but said they plan to discuss it during Hunter's sentencing.

Prosecutors filed felony information against Hunter in August, and he waived his right to a grand jury indictment that would have formally charged him with a crime.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas G. Wilson allowed him to remain free until sentencing on several conditions, including that Hunter submits to drug tests.

During routine questioning from Wilson about drugs or medicine Hunter may have taken that could cloud his judgment, Hunter said he smoked marijuana on Wednesday.

"I've been asking that question a long time," Wilson said, pausing before saying no one had answered quite like that before.

State criminal records show that in 1999, Hunter pleaded no contest to charges of possession of marijuana and selling marijuana. Adjudication was withheld in the case, and a judge sentenced him to two years' probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant told the judge that he has "stacks of reports" on people who may be involved with illegal activity, based on information from Hunter. Trezevant did not elaborate on what Hunter told him or what crimes the government is investigating.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.