Turtle-Smuggling flight attendants sentenced to probation
LOS ANGELES (KUSI) – Two flight attendants for a Chinese airline were fined Monday and ordered to leave the United States within 72 hours for attempting to smuggle dozens of spotted and box turtles in carry-on bags from Los Angeles to China.
Chinese nationals Huaqian Qu, 41, and Renfeng Gao, 31, pleaded guilty last month in downtown Los Angeles to a federal conspiracy charge, which carries a possible penalty of up to five years behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
As part of their probationary sentences, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero ordered that both defendants pay $5,500 each to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before returning to their native China within three days.
Qu and Gao — who worked as crew members for China Eastern Airlines — declined to make statements prior to sentencing.
In rejecting the prosecution’s argument for 10-month prison sentences, Otero said the smuggling offense “was not violent,” the defendants were “cooperative” in interviews with investigators and they maintained good behavior while on bond since their arrests in May.
Probationary sentences with fines were “sufficient,” the judge said.
Qu and Gao were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport with 10 protected spotted turtles and 14 box turtles hidden in pillowcases and plastic bags packed in Qu’s China Eastern work luggage. Gao carried 21 spotted turtles in his carry-on bag for the 13-hour flight to Shanghai.
Prosecutors said they suspect Qu and Gao of having successfully run turtles out of LAX on multiple occasions previously. But on May 12, a random X- ray luggage check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration detected “unusual round objects” in Qu’s carry-on bags during a routine inspection, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
The TSA inspector who flagged the luggage said he recognized that the bags contained turtles, “based on his enthusiasm for turtles as a teenager,” the document states.
The smuggling attempt left two of the 45 reptiles dead and two others sick, prosecutors wrote in sentencing papers that pointed out the cruelty to animals of such schemes.
Profit appeared to be the motive. The defendants paid about $200 per animal in the Los Angeles area and expected to pocket as much as $41,000 for the lot in Asia, where there is a “robust” market for turtle species native to the United States, according to court papers. Spotted turtles, for example, are highly prized in China based upon the number and size of spots on their shells, experts said in court documents.
Such turtles are protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — known as CITES. The agreement regulates international trade in more than 36,000 species of plants and animals, including their products and derivatives. CITES uses a permit system to ensure that trade in listed species is legal and traceable.
“Neither defendant … nor anyone else had obtained the required export permit for these CITES-protected turtles or filed a declaration for exporting these animals,” court documents said.