Feds make arrest in Southern California tortoise smuggling case 5-18-07

- Most ultra-secret international smuggling rings try to traffic in drugs, looted antiquities or slaves. But according to prosecutors, this one tried something different - rare tortoises.

Wai Ho Gin, also known as Bobby Gin, and Umesh Kishore Tekani, nicknamed Mexx, a suspected accomplice in Singapore, earned more than $70,000 smuggling more than 120 protected and endangered radiated and Indian star tortoises to U.S. collectors, according to court papers.

The tortoises - Geochelone radiata and Geochelone elgans - are prized by collectors for their brilliant shells and can sell for several thousands of dollars on the U.S. black market.

Gin, 31, turned himself in to federal agents Thursday. He was released on $50,000 bail, and his arraignment was scheduled for Monday. Tekani remains at large, probably in Singapore, authorities said.

They each face conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering charges and if convicted, sentences of more than 20 years in prison.

The radiated tortoise is the world's most beautiful reptile and seductive for the rarefied community of tortoise enthusiasts, according to Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America, part of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Almost like baseball cards, collectors want a full set of a species,” Allan said. “The majority in the U.S. would not consider buying from an illegal source. But there are those who don't care if it's smuggled by a crime gang as long as they can add a species they can't get ahold of to their collection.”

Ralph Hoekstra, 69, of Huntington Beach said he put his scruples aside in 2002 when he saw an ad for 10 dwarf Indian star tortoises on a reptile enthusiast Web site.

“I knew I shouldn't have done it,” Hoekstra said. “But at that time, I was interested in the species.”

He said he corresponded with Gin, whom authorities described as a distributor of animals obtained by Tekani in Asia, and arranged for a shipment to be sent to his home. Ten days later, a federal Fish and Wildlife Officer dressed as a letter carrier made the drop. When Hoekstra accepted the package, several others raided his home.

It was not immediately known how federal officials learned of the transaction. A telephone message left for Gin's attorney, a federal public defender, was not immediately returned.

Hoekstra was given probation and has since opted to give away all but six of his tortoises.