For the second time in less than five years, Holly Hill resident Steven Verren Baker was in front of a federal judge after being caught smuggling protected turtles.
Baker, 38, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife after packages containing the turtles were intercepted in transit between the U.S. and China, according to an announcement by the U.S. Attorney's Office on Wednesday.
Court documents revealed an elaborate scheme that had the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for the perpetrators.
The smuggling took place between January and June 2016 and utilized fake names and return addresses to evade detection, according to court documents. Shipments were set up through Facebook messages.
Turtles were placed in boxes labeled "snacks" and shipped from Hong Kong, the documents stated. The reptiles were packaged in socks and items like pieces of candy and noodles were placed around them in an effort to conceal them in transit to South Carolina and other parts of the United States.
"The approximate value of the smuggled turtles is between $117,200 and $409,250, depending on the market," documents state.
While 46 turtles were intercepted by authorities, investigators believe more were shipped that evaded detection, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston David Holliday Jr.
"The indictment supports hundreds," Holliday said.
Investigators believe U.S. collectors were paying for turtles considered to be exotic from China, while Chinese customers were collecting American turtles in some cases, and consuming them — either as food or for medicinal purposes, the prosecutor said.
The international conspiracy wasn't the first time Baker found himself in trouble for smuggling wildlife.
In 2014, he pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking wild turtles taken from South Carolina's interior and attempting to sell them to a buyer in Florida. He also pleaded to being a felon in possession of guns and ammunition. A search of his residence in conjunction with the turtle probe revealed a wide assortment of guns and firearms.
Baker received three years probation for the turtle-related charge on Sept. 23, 2015, court documents stated.
Less than four months later, the Holly Hill man had set up the international turtle-smuggling conspiracy.
Baker will be sentenced on his current charge at a later date. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a potential fine of $250,000.
Cases against Baker's five named codefendants are pending, Holliday said.