Four Florida men and two men from Georgia are accused of a scheme to illegally catch and export to Asia flying squirrels and other protected species.
Following a months-long investigation, the men were charged with 25 felonies, including racketeering and money laundering, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
FWC investigators arrested the men between April and August. One suspect in the case is still free.
“With the exception of one individual, all those involved have been arrested, so we felt it was the right time to highlight this case,” said Shannon Knowles, an FWC spokeswoman.
The FWC received a tip in January about people trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County in Central Florida. Contrary to their name, the nocturnal rodents don’t fly, but, rather, glide from tree to tree.
They are protected under Florida law, but nevertheless are a popular animal in the international pet trade, according to the FWC release.
“Over the next 19 months, FWC investigators pieced together an elaborate scheme in which flying squirrels were illegally captured by poachers in multiple counties throughout Central Florida,” Knowles said.
They were then sold to a licensed wildlife dealer in Bushnell in Central Florida, who marketed them as being bred in captivity.
According to the FWC, the poachers caught as many as 3,600 squirrels in less than three years using up to 10,000 traps throughout Central Florida. The FWC estimates the international retail value of the animals exceeds $1 million, and that the wildlife dealers grossed as much as $213,800.
Buyers from South Korea traveled to the United States and bought the squirrels from the wildlife dealer in Bushnell, according to the press release. The South Koreans would transport the squirrels to Chicago in rental cars.
From Chicago, the squirrels were flown to Asia “by an unwitting international wildlife exporter,” the press release states.
After a while, couriers from Georgia took over for the South Koreans. One would fly to Orlando, rent a car and drive the animals to Atlanta. From there, another courier would drive them to Chicago.
“Each of the new participants would not know the identity of the other suspects,” Knowles said.
FWC investigators later learned the suspects were also selling other protected animals, like freshwater turtles and alligators.
“Documents were falsified, concealing the true source of the wildlife,” Knowles said.
The FWC was aided in its investigation by the Illinois Conservation Police, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case.
Charged in the case are: Rodney Crendall Knox, 66, of Bushnell; Kenneth Lee Roebuck, 59, of Lake Panasoffkee (near The Villages); Donald Lee Harrod Jr., 49, of Bushnell; Vester Ray Taylor Jr. 40, of Webster; Jong Yun Baek, 56, of Marietta, Georgia; and Ervin Woodyard Jr., 40, of Greenville, Georgia.
The press release also states there is an “unnamed fugitive” in the group, and that more charges and arrests may be coming.