On July 25, the Central District of California issued a press release that detailed the arrest of Rodrigo Franco, a 34-year-old California man. According to the criminal complaint, Franco imported king cobras and albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. After the California man ordered the snakes from an online wildlife dealer, Customs and Border Protection intercepted the mail under the suspicion that the packages contained drugs.
On March 2, a Customs and Border Protection officer flagged the package as Franco’s address connected to drug shipments, of some sort. The federal agents avoided these details. However, upon opening the package, the agent found potato chips cans. He then noticed movement inside a can. CBP immediately called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for assistance. To some surprise, the FWS agents recognized the address as well—only not for drugs.
Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Stephanie Johnson instructed her agents and the CBP agents not to open the packages. They, however, ended up doing just that:
“I directed the Wildlife Inspectors and the CBP Agricultural Specialists to not open the small potato chip canisters until we could take them to a more controlled and safe environment. However, while I was interviewing Agricultural Specialist Pimentel (described above), WI Kawabata opened one of the canisters and verified there was a snake inside (at the time, the snake was passive and did not attempt to strike at WI Kawabata).”
FWS agents, according to court documents, recognized the address too, thanks to interactions with the same online animal supplier from Hong Kong. Agents seized the snakes. At the same date, Franco shipped six protected turtles to an address in Hong Kong, but USFWS agents seized those package(s) as well. USPIS, with the snakes removed from the package, performed a controlled delivery with only the soft-shelled turtles. Immediately following the delivery, the USFWS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations conducted a search warrant obtained for the possession of turtles.
According to the court documents, agents found another set of illegal animals when executing the search warrant. The report explained the search team had found—in the children’s room—the aforementioned box of turtles, a Morelet’s crocodile, tanks containing alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamond back terrapins.
During the raid, Franco returned to his house where he found a host of CBP agents and US fish police. They sat him down for questioning. Unfortunately for Franco, he spoke to the police, and voluntarily explained that he had previously ordered another 20 snakes from the same supplier. But the snakes had died, he said. In a phone conversation with a contact, Franco mentioned feeding the snakes, but again, reassured agents that that had died mid-flight. (Or really any time while stuck in a Pringles can for days at a time).
For the importation of 20 or more king cobras, possession of the illegally owned snapping turtles and crocodile, Franco faces one count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States. The smuggling charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.