Agents told Pata, 54, that their “discoveries of the undeclared wildlife in [his] export cargo…was inconsistent with the terms of his cooperative relationship with law enforcement.” Pata eventually came clean and told agents he sent the protected turtles to Cheung using customs declarations he knew were false. Pata said he and Cheung used coded language when discussing their activities: “Ear Infection” for a box turtle, and “Small High Color Cooter” for a spotted turtle.

At the time of each shipment, Pata said he would file bogus invoices with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which went into the standard carnet that accompanies every commercial export leaving the US. Pata would then follow up by emailing the real invoice to Cheung, which “reflected the actual species, quantities, and true price of the turtles Cheung had bought.” Cheung would then wire Pata the money, plus a flat fee of $4,000.

Presumably spooked, Pata agreed to cooperate with the feds and take part in a sting to get Cheung. Pata would continue to supply Cheung with illegal exports of protected turtles, under the feds’ supervision.

The end

On June 19, Pata shipped nine diamondback terrapins and 20 undeclared box turtles to Cheung in Hong Kong. Agents inventoried the cargo on its way out of the country and cleared it for departure, once again, “in order to fulfill investigative objectives.” Pata’s phony invoice, included with the shipment, reflected a total due of more than $35,000.

The next day, Pata emailed Cheung the real invoice, which he also provided to investigators. On top of the original $35,000, Pata added another $5,100 to the total, for “16 ear infection;” “4 ear infection extra scutes;” and “9 purple color,” which was their code word for diamondback terrapins. A few days later, Cheung wired Pata the money, plus his usual $4,000 fee.

Over the next several weeks, Cheung ordered dozens more illegal turtles from Pata, as well as two endangered rhinoceros iguanas, which are threatened with extinction and, as such, listed in CITES Appendix I with the most at-risk animals in the world. For this, Cheung paid more than $87,000.

Agents finally arrested Cheung last Thursday in California. Details of his arrest have not been made available, and Cheung does not yet have an attorney listed in court filings. He is due back in court Aug. 12.

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