Officers stake out 2 airports, nab accused turtle trafficker

ATLANTA (AP) — An investigation involving two of the world’s biggest airports and hundreds of turtles has led to federal charges that a man illegally shipped the reptiles to China.

Nathan Horton is charged with violating the Lacey Act, which forbids illegal wildlife trafficking.

Prosecutors took a slow-wins-the-race approach to filing charges this week, since the case began as early as 2016. That’s when a Georgia Department of Natural Resources officer found Horton trapping turtles on Georgia’s Lake Jackson, southeast of Atlanta. He told the officer he had 1,000 active turtle traps on Lake Jackson, court records how.

The next year, undercover officers met with Horton, which they videotaped.

“Horton said that he shipped all the turtles he caught to a person in California who exports them to China for the pet trade,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent John Elofson wrote in a sworn affidavit, recounting what was said in the undercover meeting.

Turtles are considered “prized pets” in China, and a single wild turtle caught in the U.S. can sell for hundreds of dollars in China, Elofson noted.

Wildlife officials began monitoring turtle shipments from Atlanta’s airport. The California Department of Natural Resources also had undercover officers on the lookout for turtles in transit at Los Angeles International Airport. One shipment they tracked at the Los Angeles airport involved five boxes of turtles that went from Southwest Airlines’ cargo area to China Southern Airlines.

Court records don’t list an attorney who could be reached on Horton’s behalf.

In March, four South Carolina men were sentenced in a similar case in which turtle transactions were set up using the Facebook text messaging feature. One of the men — Steven Verren Baker of Holly Hills, South Carolina — was described by prosecutors as the ringleader of an “international syndicate of wildlife smugglers” that exchanged turtles between the U.S. and China. Baker was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.


An earlier version of this report had an incorrect spelling for the Lacey Act.