A Mount Pleasant woman is among three people indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly attempting to import sea turtle shells, queen conch shells and spiny lobsters.
Sharon Vollmer, 23, is accused in indictments announced Monday of illegally importing endangered wildlife species and their shells from the Bahamas into the United States. Also charged are Glenn Bridges, 49, and Gregory Johnson, 52, both of Fort Pierce, Fla.
If convicted of all charges, each could face up to six years in prison and fines totaling $350,000, the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Florida said.
The owner of a Florida shell shop said Monday that while there is a black market for turtle shells, legitimate dealers won't touch them.
"Ivory and turtle shells are absolute voodoo, and we don't want them on our property," said Patrick Elias, a
Tampa Bay-area shell dealer for more than 20 years.
Bridges, Johnson and Vollmer were released on personal surety bonds after being formally served with warrants issued by the grand jury, said Michelle Alvarez, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in South Florida. She said that in court, an attorney for the defendants said Vollmer was a longtime girlfriend of Bridges.
The indictment charges the trio with conspiracy to possess and import wildlife; importation of endangered and threatened wildlife; and importation into the U.S. of wildlife possessed and transported in violation of the laws of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Bridges is also charged with making a false statement to the Coast Guard, authorities said.
The indictment alleges that on or about Nov. 17 in St. Lucie County, Fla., Bridges, Johnson, and Vollmer attempted to import spiny lobster, queen conch and the shells of Hawksbill sea turtles, Loggerhead sea turtles and Green sea turtles. The offenses violated the possession limits for each of the species set by Bahamian law and backed by a U.S. law known as the Lacey Act, authorities said.
Whether Bridges, Johnson and Vollmer are alleged to have imported the items to sell -- or whether they purportedly intended the items for their own use -- Alvarez said she could not say. She said she could not answer questions about the case because of the ongoing investigation.
The owner of a Florida shop that markets shells said that it's well-known in the trade that turtle shells are illegal to possess or sell in the U.S. While there is a black market for turtle shells, legitimate dealers "know that you can't sell them, so there's no value for them," said Elias, owner of The Florida Shell Shop in Treasure Island, Fla.
"There is a black market for anything that is illegal, and any turtle shell that's brought into the shop, even in jewelry, we have stayed away from," he added.
Elias said it is illegal to harvest conch shells in Florida, and though there have long been conch shells available to purchase legally, they are becoming scarce.
"I haven't been able to get them in a year," Elias said.
He said he had six left in stock, at $20 each.
He added: "Everything that we sell has been cleared by Customs."
The Lacey Act makes it "unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the U.S., or in violation of any Indian tribal law whether in interstate or foreign commerce."
The act gives federal authorities the power to confiscate all plants or animals taken in violation of the act, "as well as all vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment used to aid in the importing, exporting, transporting, selling, receiving, acquiring, or purchasing of fish or wildlife."