‘Operation Snowplow’ nets guilty plea; Illinois man faces fines, prison

‘Operation Snowplow’ nets guilty plea; Illinois man faces fines, prison


Dr. Robert Martinez of Palos Heights, Ill., has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Chicago to one felony count of purchasing an endangered black leopard (Panthera pardus) knowing that the animal was unlawfully taken, possessed, transported. and sold, in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law.

In pleading guilty, Martinez admitted that in August 1997, he purchased from co-defendants Steven Galecki and William Kapp the hides of two African lions, one cougar, one leopard, and one tiger. Martinez admitted that he shot and killed the animals while they were confined in cages at the Funky Monkey Animal Park in Crete, Ill., and later displayed the mounted hide of the leopard at his residence. Martinez also admitted that he obtained false U.S. Department of Agriculture forms declaring that the animals had been “donated” to him, and that he illegally possessed a barasingha—a type of endangered Asian deer—which he shot and killed at a game farm in Two Rivers, Mich., in 1998. Agents seized the leopard, tiger, barasingha, and several leopard skulls, during a search of Martinez’s home in 1999.

Martinez, 52, entered his plea before U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning. The charge to which Martinez pleaded guilty is a felony, and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 21, 2003. at 11:30 a.m.

The case is part of a multi-state investigation dubbed “Operation Snowplow” into illegal trafficking in endangered and protected wildlife, which was conducted by law enforcement agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and coordinated through U. S. Attorney’s Offices in Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. The investigation uncovered the illegal killing and trade of protected tigers, leopards, and other animals in the Midwest. Agents found the animals had been killed in cages or trailers, and their hides, skulls and other parts were sold for display as trophies. Some meat was sold for human consumption, according to the indictments.

As a result of the investigation, 17 defendants have been indicted, eight in Chicago, five in Missouri, and four in Michigan. All but two of the defendants have pleaded guilty to charges of violating wildlife protection laws. To date, defendants have been ordered to pay a total of approximately $90,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, much of which has been directed to go to the Foundation’s Save the Tiger Fund. Approximately $30,000 of these funds have been earmarked for projects in Thailand and Russia for training rangers and other measures aimed at stopping the poaching of tigers.

Tigers are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and leopards are considered either endangered or threatened, depending on the location of the wild population. Although federal law allows possession of captive-bred endangered animals, regulations require that activities involving their use enhance the propagation or survival of the species. It is unlawful to kill such animals for profit or to sell their hides, parts or meat in interstate commerce.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principle Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses nearly 540 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish resource offices and 78 ecological service field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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