A Kentucky man was sentenced to 15 months in prison for illegally selling hundreds of captured box turtles into the international pet market, which nearly caused the local population in eastern part of the Bluegrass State to collapse.
Christopher Cool, 59, of McKee, Kentucky, admitted he sold around $140,000 worth of the reptiles to buyers in New York and elsewhere, with the understanding that they would be sold in Asia where they are popular as pets.
He pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the interstate sale of wildlife, in July 2020.
Prosecutors say that between 2019 and 2020, Cool enlisted friends to help trap the turtles for which he paid them $10 each. He would then sell the turtles to out-of-state buyers for $100 or more.
“I sell box turtles to rich Chinese people in New York for a hundred bucks EACH and up,” Cool wrote to a friend around the time of his arrest in 2020, according to court documents. “And I have an endless supply of them here.”
Cool is believed to have taken nearly 700 turtles from the wild in Kentucky and 125 more in West Virginia, a rate that could have ultimately decimated the population, prosecutors said.
“‘Taking the number of turtles that Cool did out of the wild could have resulted in a population crash for the box turtles in this area if he had not been stopped.’”
“All turtles, including the box turtles, have a slow rate of maturity and taking the number of turtles that Cool did out of the wild could have resulted in a population crash for the box turtles in this area if he had not been stopped,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
Box turtles in the U.S. are considered a vulnerable species largely due to excessive trapping and demand for them as pets, particularly in Asia, according to wildlife authorities.
A message left with Cool’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned. In court filings, Cool said he had long been active in collecting and dealing in reptiles, but had only turned to the widespread selling of the turtles to make ends meet after being forced onto disability when he suffered a back injury and could no longer work his job at a tile company.
Cool also said he used some of the money to help friends who were in need, a claim prosecutors challenged.
“While he may have helped some friends or neighbors in financial straits, he also indulged himself by buying a Harley Davidson and illegal drugs,” the prosecution’s sentencing memo read.
Cool acknowledged in court filings that since going on disability, he had become a user of methamphetamine.
'I can only encourage people so much to come on board for the good of the country,' Charles Rettig, Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, said.
Lukas covers financial crime for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @lalpert1.