In 1987, Florida adopted the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) as its official reptile. Who could have foreseen that three decades later this stately, scaly, once endangered creature would find itself at the center of a thriving “marsh to market” economy generating around $7.6 million for the state per year, let alone an ensuing crime ring?
This spring, a peculiar case shed light on Florida’s highly lucrative, highly regulated alligator farm industry, as well as on a ring of alleged gator egg poachers. State’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers concluded a four-year sting operation this May with the arrests of nine men alleged to be poachers, the largest investigation of its kind. Nicknamed “Operation Alligator Thief,” the sting snared the men on 44 felony charges collectively, including stealing, racketeering and falsifying court records; court proceedings will likely commence in early 2018.
To carry out their undercover operation, two officers using the aliases Curtis Blackledge and Justin Rooks played the part of legitimate alligator farm operators, opening Sunshine Alligator Farm in DeSoto County. As the Commission’s Lt. George Wilson described it: “Land was leased, licenses obtained, infrastructure built to create a fully functioning alligator farm. Alligator stock was legally purchased from other alligator farmers to build the business and facilitate business contacts…The alligator farm established business credibility for the (undercover) officers to infiltrate the criminal element.”
Posing as Blackledge and Rooks, the officers first established a trusted network of industry contacts via trade shows and business meetings. They then let it be known that they’d be willing to purchase illegally harvested gator eggs, and eventually were invited to attend illicit harvesting expeditions. Over the course of the sting they documented more than 10,000 eggs being taken from nests without proper permits; even when individuals had permits, they often took far more eggs than allotted, did not have a state-required wildlife biologist present, and forged follow-up paperwork.
For investigators, the sting was not solely to demonstrate the commission is getting tough on crime but to send a message about poaching’s potentially devastating statewide impacts: “Their crimes pose serious environmental and economic consequences. These suspects not only damage Florida’s valuable natural resources, they also harm law-abiding business owners by operating black markets that undermine the legal process,” said Maj. Grant Burton, head of the agency’s Investigations Section.
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