A Florida man has been given probation after pleading guilty to multiple counts of illegally distributing juvenile turtles considered a health hazard because they can carry salmonella.
Steve Maleh, 42, of Plantation, was sentenced Thursday in federal court in Charleston after earlier pleading guilty.
U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. sentenced Maleh to three years' probation. Maleh also pleaded guilty to one count of impersonating a federal agent in connection with a bogus letter.
Prosecutors said Maleh operated the Island Breeze store on Hilton Head Island, where reports surfaced that the store was providing baby turtles to customers.
Hilton Head code enforcement officers and agents from the federal Food and Drug Administration made multiple visits over several years informing Maleh and his staff that distributing the juvenile turtles was illegal. The turtles were believed to be yellow-bellied sliders.
One particular health concern was avoiding exposure with humans, primarily children, to salmonella bacteria that the turtles can carry, triggering diarrhea, cramps and vomiting.
The sale of turtles with a shell measurement length of less than 4 inches also has been banned by the federal government since 1975.
"In this case, children who play with the small turtles are at high risk for infections," said David Bourne, special agent in charge of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations at the Miami Field Office.
Authorities also reported that the owner of a competing business on Hilton Head received a letter, purportedly from the FDA, stating that he should stop selling juvenile turtles or face criminal action. An investigation showed Maleh had sent the letter.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Bianchi of the Charleston office prosecuted the case.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.