COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Three South Carolinians and a North Carolinian have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of operating an illegal scheme to smuggle tiny turtles in and out of the United States.
The turtles were shipped by U.S. mail and FedEx, packaged in socks and covered up with little pieces of candy or noodles, according to the indictment. Many of the packages were labeled "snacks."
Smuggling turtles, many endangered and federally protected, is a little known but profitable illegal business. Several shipments, totaling 148 turtles, were estimated to be worth "between $117,200 and $409,250," according to the indictment.
"Collectors in the U.S. will pay thousands of dollars for exotic Chinese turtles, and collectors in China will pay thousands for U.S. turtles," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who is prosecuting the case.
One of the men indicted, Matthew Harrison Kail of North Carolina, was caught illegally collecting two spotted turtles at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near the Outer Banks, according to the indictment. When apprehended, he had $17,000 in cash and two ornate diamondback terrapins on him, the indictment said.
The South Carolinians indicted were Joseph Logan Brooks of Holly Hill and Matthew Tyler Fischer and William Martin Fischer, both of Harleyville.
Sponsored Video Stories from LifeZette
Only Brooks has a lawyer, according to court records. His attorney, Debbie Barbier, could not be reached for comment.
The four are charged with failing to obtain the permits required under an international wildlife protection treaty to import and export turtles, and engaging in a conspiracy to carry out illegal wildlife smuggling, importing and exporting the little shelled reptiles. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
Federal investigators learned about the four after the 2016 arrest of a New York City man, Jason Hsu.
Federal inspectors opened packages at New York's JFK International Airport and found 48 endangered Chinese and South American turtles nestled in piles of candy and noodles.