A man in North Carolina was sentenced to 18 months in prison Wednesday for collecting and trafficking three species of turtles from the U.S. to Asia.
Jesse James Freeman, 48, pleaded guilty in September 2020 to violating the Lacey Act, a protection that prohibits transporting wildlife if it has been illegally taken under state laws, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a press release.
“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,” the DOJ stated. “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.”
Those turtles were worth more than $1.5 million in Asia, and Freeman personally made around $121,000 from supplying smugglers with the turtles. The three turtle species Freeman admitted to trafficking are highly valued by collectors in the “domestic and foreign pet trade market,” according to the DOJ.
“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,” the DOJ explained. “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.”
The eastern box, spotted, and wood turtle species are all protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). According to CITES, while these species are not currently endangered, their survival could be threatened by unregulated trade.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in the DOJ press release. “Today’s sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles.”
Along with serving 18 months in prison, Freeman will also be required to go through three years of post-release supervision and pay $25,000 to the Lacey Act Reward Fund.