SANTA CRUZ (KPIX) – Three men caught smuggling succulent plants along the north coast in Mendocino and Humboldt counties have been sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $10,000 fines, state wildlife officials announced Tuesday.
Liu Fengxia, 37, of China, and Tae-Hun Kim, 52, and Tae-Hyun Kim, 46, both from Korea, each pleaded guilty to two felonies and other misdemeanor charges and were handed a sentence of three years and eight months in state prison and a $10,000 fine each.
Judge John T. Feeney suspended the prison sentences with the conditions that the defendants are prohibited from re-entering the United States without prior authorization of the federal government and state courts, and prohibited from entering any local, state or national park.
The succulent plants at the center of the investigation are called Dudleyas. They grow in unique niches close to the coastline, typically on cliffsides immediately adjacent to the water.
Wildlife officials said the poachers had a network of buyers in Korea and China, where Dudleya are valued as a trendy houseplant usually being sold on the black market for $40 to $50 each.
"Pretty unusual case for us," said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Capt. Patrick Foy at the time of the men's arrest. "Like nothing we've seen before in terms of the scale and the type of poaching involved."
California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigators busted up the ring in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, where they say poachers were scaling coastal bluffs to rip the plants out of the ground by the thousands.
Investigators were tipped off when the smugglers tried to send packages of plants overseas in the mail.
"There was a number of cases where just the sheer volume of shipping out of the post office caught the attention of people who work there and people in line who noticed something was odd," Foy said.
He said dirt was often spilling out of the shipping boxes.
During the investigation, wildlife officers witnessed the three removing plants from coastal bluffs in the Humboldt Lagoons State Park. On April 4, officers found the trio in possession of 2,300 Dudleya plants and more than $10,200 in cash.
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