"Wildlife trafficker" Atshushi Yamagami going to prison for reptile smuggling

These live turtles were among more than 50 confiscated Friday, Jan. 7, 2011, at Los Angeles International Airport.
U.S Attorney in Los Angeles

(CBS) LOS ANGELES - A man federal authorities call "a major wildlife trafficker" will spend 21 months in federal prison for smuggling 55 turtles and tortoises into the United States last year.

Prosecutors said the creatures were hidden in snack food boxes.

CBS Los Angeles reports 39-year-old Atsushi Yamagami was sentenced Monday morning and ordered to pay a fine of $19,403. .

In August, Yamagami pleaded guilty to smuggling the reptiles from Japan. Most of the animals were species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Federal prosecutors had also argued that the method of cramming the turtles into snack food boxes, and then stuffing them into suitcases, amounted to animal cruelty. Further, prosecutors claimed the reptiles posed the risk of transmitting salmonella.

According to federal agents, Yamagami was the leader of an organized group of Japanese nationals responsible for smuggling protected turtles, tortoises, chameleons and lizards into and out of the U.S., primarily through airports in Honolulu and Los Angeles.

Prosecutors said that after smuggling them into the country, Yamagami would sell or trade them at reptile shows across the U.S., using the proceeds to buy snakes, turtles and tortoises native to North America.

Since his arrest at Los Angeles International Airport in January 2011, Yamagami has been held without bail.

Norihide Ushirozako and Hiroki Uetsuki, two of Yamagami's couriers from Osaka, were arrested and prosecuted for wildlife smuggling in 2011. Ushirozako was sentenced in August to time served - approximately seven months - and Uetsuki was also sentenced to time served, approximately six months.

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