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Three Men Plead Guilty to Conspiracy to Violate the Lacey Act by Illegally Trafficking Threatened Alligator Snapping Turtles

The Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that Travis Leger and Rickey Simon, both of Sulphur, Louisiana, and Jason Leckelt of Wilburton, Oklahoma, have all pled guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act by illegally trafficking alligator snapping turtles.

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can grow to weigh more than 200 pounds with a lifespan of more than 100 years. The turtles are designated as threatened with statewide extinction under Texas State Law, which strictly prohibits anyone from taking, capturing, transporting, or selling these turtles, or attempting to do so. The turtles are also protected under Louisiana State Law, which makes it illegal to sell or barter for the turtles. The Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to engage in the interstate trafficking of wildlife taken in violation of state wildlife protection laws.

“Those who choose to exploit our precious wildlife resources threaten the existence of these rare reptiles,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston. “Protection of the turtles and the prevention of diseases that may spread by these actions make these prosecutions vital to the health of our natural wildlife.”

In April 2017, Leger, Leckelt, and Simon were charged in a six-count indictment. The conspiracy charged all defendants with illegally taking more than 60 large alligator snapping turtles during their multiple fishing trips to Texas in the spring and summer of 2016, and also with transporting the turtles back to a property in Sulphur, Louisiana, where they intended to sell the turtles. In July 2016, Federal agents seized about 30 large alligator snapping turtles from ponds located at a defendant’s property in Sulphur, Louisiana, pursuant to a federal search warrant.

As part of his guilty plea, Travis Leger admitted to selling a live, illegally taken, 171-pound turtle for $1,000 and another live, illegally taken, 168-pound turtle for $500 in May and June of 2016. The turtles were later seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agents from the buyer and are currently being cared for at a private facility. In sum, Leger admitted that the market value of all the turtles that he caught illegally in Texas and then sold in Louisiana during the course of the conspiracy was between $40,000 and $95,000. Leger also agreed to forfeit all of the turtles seized from his property in Sulphur, Louisiana, and will permit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return to the property, drain the ponds, and seize all remaining alligator snapping turtles. Similarly, Jason Leckelt, who is Leger’s half-brother, admitted that the market value of the turtles that he illegally personally caught in Texas and sold in Louisiana during the course of the conspiracy was between $15,000 and $40,000.

Finally, Rickey Simon admitted that his role in the conspiracy included selling a 120-pound alligator snapping turtle, illegally caught in Texas, to an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent in May of 2016. In addition, Mr. Simon admitted that he obstructed justice by deleting text messages from his cell phone prior to being interviewed by a Special Agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the execution of the search warrant at the Sulphur property in July 2016. Simon deleted the text messages from his cell phone after Travis Leger called and warned him that game wardens were coming to the Sulphur property to take the turtles out of the ponds. Simon also admitted that he subsequently made false statements to the Special Agent during the execution of the search warrant at the Sulphur property by denying that he had ever fished for alligator snapping turtles in Texas.

The defendants all face up to a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the conspiracy convictions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph R. Batte of the Eastern District of Texas and Senior Trial Attorney David P. Kehoe of the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section, prosecuted the case. The case is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.