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SC men admit to running international turtle-smuggling operation

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Steven Verren Baker

Steven Verren Baker. Cannon Detention Center/Provided

Four men have admitted their roles in an illegal operation to smuggle protected turtles from China to Holly Hill — an operation that had the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Three South Carolina residents and one man from Florida pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges in U.S. District Court in Columbia, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. 

Pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife were: Joseph Logan Brooks, 29, formerly of Holly Hill; Matthew Tyler Fischer, 25, of Holly Hill; and Matthew Harrison Kail, 30, of Pomona Park, Fla.

William Martin Fischer, 48, of Harleyville, pleaded guilty to wildlife trafficking.

The group's leader, 38-year-old Steven Verren Baker of Holly Hill, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to smuggle wildlife. 

Between January and June 2016, authorities said Baker received protected turtles from Hong Kong and also shipped turtles to Asia. The shipments were arranged via Facebook messenger. 

Turtles were placed in boxes labeled "snacks" and concealed by bags of noodles, small pieces of candy and socks, according to court documents. 

Brooks received international packages of turtles, authorities said. Matthew Fischer gave Baker access to his bank account to receive wire transfers. William Fischer negotiated for the purchase of two protected turtles. Authorities said Kail provided, bought and sold turtles.

Investigators believed collectors in the U.S. were paying for exotic turtles from China, while Chinese customers were collecting American turtles and consuming them as food or for medicinal purposes. 

In the spring of 2016, authorities intercepted 46 turtles at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The packages had originated in Hong Kong.

Thirty-eight turtles were seized at the Holly Hill home where Baker and Brooks lived. 

Around that same time, Kail was arrested while collecting two spotted turtles from a North Carolina wildlife refuge, according to court documents. 

The approximate value of the smuggled turtles was between $117,200 and $409,250, "depending on the market," authorities said.  

The men will be sentenced at a later date.

Brooks, Matthew Fischer and Kail face a maximum punishment of five years in prison, with a potential fine up to $250,000. William Fischer faces up to one year in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Prior to setting up the international turtle-smuggling conspiracy in 2016, an undercover federal agent caught Baker illegally trafficking wild turtles from South Carolina and trying to sell them to a buyer in Florida. He received three years probation in 2015, court documents stated.

Reach Angie Jackson at 843-937-5705. Follow her on Twitter at @angiejackson23

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