A federal judge in Wilmington, North Carolina, sentenced Jesse James Freeman, 48, of Franklinville, North Carolina, to 18 months in prison and three years of post-release supervision. Freeman will also have to pay a $25,000 fine to the Lacey Act Reward Fund. The judge prohibited Freeman from owning wild-caught wildlife and any wildlife without documentation of origin during the supervisory period. Freeman pleaded guilty on Sept. 30, 2020, to trafficking turtles in violation of the Lacey Act.
In pleading guilty, Freeman admitted that between January 2017 and September 2018, he supplied turtles to middlemen throughout the country so they could smuggle them to Asia. He collected the turtles himself and hired poachers to illegally obtain them throughout North Carolina. Freeman trafficked at least 722 eastern box turtles, 122 spotted turtles and three wood turtles. Freeman personally received at least $121,000 in payment for those turtles. The market value in Asia for those turtles exceeded $1.5 million.
Freeman possessed and sold the turtles in violation of North Carolina 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 were illegally taken under state laws.
The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is the North Carolina state reptile and endemic to forested regions of the East Coast and Midwest. The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) and wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) are semi-aquatic turtles native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. Poaching can have devastating impacts on all three turtle species given the low survival rate of hatchlings and the time it takes to reach sexual maturity. Collectors prize these species in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, where they are resold for thousands of dollars.
All three turtle species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES provides a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose survival is considered threatened by trade. The turtles are listed in Appendix II of CITES, which includes wildlife, fish and plant species that are not presently threatened with extinction but may become so if their trade is not regulated. The United States and approximately 183 other nations are signatories to the CITES treaty.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, considers the illegal collection and commercialization of native reptiles to include eastern box turtles a high priority, and we will continue to work closely with our state partners and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute these important cases,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement.
The USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in Raleigh conducted the investigation with assistance from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. The operation was a part of ongoing efforts to combat the trafficking of turtles and tortoises native to the United States. The government is represented by Trial Attorneys Banu Rangarajan and Ryan Connors of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Toby Lathan for the Eastern District of North Carolina.