A New Jersey man pleaded guilty in federal court to smuggling box turtles collected illegally here in Oklahoma. Federal investigators said William Gangemi agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution along with a large fine.
State Game Warden Carlos Gomez told News On 6 box turtles can sell for anywhere between $5 to $25 all the way up to $2,000 each - an illegal practice he and other agencies are trying to stop.
Gangemi will now have to pay $250,000 in restitution to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and a $100,000 fine to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"He's one of the big buyers that's collecting the turtles from around the country from the lower level people that are actually capturing the turtles, and then he's shipping them to try and get them in the marketplace in Southeast Asia," said Game Warden Carlos Gomez.
Officials said Gangemi worked with a group of people to illegally collect more than 1,000 box turtles from Oklahoma.
"Depending on how many toes are on the turtle and how ornate the shell is, the price would go up," said Game Warden Gomez.
It was a tip that helped Oklahoma game wardens connect Gangemi to the case. Gomez said about a year and a half ago, they were sent to a motel room in Creek County where they found tubs of box turtles.
"The gentleman in New Jersey received those turtles, accepted those turtles and continued the shipment process - and so we were able to track those turtles, and that lead to the case," said Game Warden Gomez.
Game wardens worked with other local and federal agents to arrest Gangemi. Ann Money with The Oklahoma Aquarium said smuggling box turtles is not only illegal but can also cause significant harm.
"When you take an animal out of its natural habitat it causes confusion and it causes stress that's just not healthy for the animal," said Ann Money, the Director of Education and Research at the Oklahoma Aquarium.
And while Game Warden Gomez said unfortunately there are many more smugglers out there, he said seeing and reporting anything suspicious could help solve a crime and possibly save an animal.
Gangemi also pleaded guilty to other federal charges for trafficking wildlife in South Carolina and in New Jersey.