Turtle trafficker pleads guilty

GRACE BEAHM/STAFF Yellow belly slider turtles like these were being trapped in Orangeburg, federal agents said. Steven Baker, 33, of Holly Hill pleaded guilty in federal court in Charleston this week to illegally trafficking wild turtles.

State turtle expert Will Dillman says the reproductive math is simple: take away the mom and dads and you soon could have a wildlife disaster.

"Stability depends on having a large number of adult turtles that is consistent from year to year," he said. "When people start trapping turtles, they are going after and removing the adults. And when you do that you can just decimate a population."

Dillman's comments came after a rogue wildlife trapper pleaded guilty in federal court in Charleston this week to illegally trafficking wild turtles taken from South Carolina's interior and attempting to sell them to a buyer in Florida.

The buyer turned out to be an undercover agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Steven Baker, 33, of Holly Hill, in Orangeburg County, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court. He faces up to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine on the wildlife charge. Additionally, Baker 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. He has previous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. Baker faces up to 10 years and a $250,000 fine on the weapons case.

During his court appearance Baker said little, other than to acknowledge Judge David Norton's questions. His sentencing will come later, after officials complete a pre-sentencing report.

The case is considered a courthouse oddity, something Norton lightly acknowledged from the bench when he joked about how infrequently the phrase "turtle-related evidence" is uttered in a federal courtroom.

Baker's case began in August 2012 when he met with an undercover officer in a Florida parking garage during the Daytona Beach Reptile Breeders Exposition. Baker, who did business as Southeastern Wildlife Locators, reportedly was there to discuss a quantity of spotted turtles which are regulated by permit, including on how many can be possessed at one time.

According to the arrest documents, Baker spoke of keeping spotted turtles that he'd caught near his Orangeburg County home in a tub in his front yard before transporting them to Florida. He also produced a backpack of turtles.

"The UC (undercover) paid Baker a total of $1,200 for 17 spotted turtles representing a wholesale market price," the affidavit said. The market value was later determined to be around $9,200.

In a later transaction, the undercover Florida agent paid $1,710 for 18 spotted turtles and 20 yellow belly turtles, the affidavit says. The calculated value of the mailed package was approximately $10,152.

At one point in the investigation, Baker also reportedly told the agent "I got guys in the woods right now," referring to people who worked for him in collecting wild spotted turtles, according to court documents.

Dillman, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources herpetologist - who helped officials identify the species involved - said it is difficult to determine how widespread the illegal taking of turtles from the wild is in South Carolina. But he said that anytime a pond, waterway, field or woodlands is raided and cleaned out by human poachers, the result can be devastating, even separate from what's become an almost common loss of habitat due to human incursion.

For starters, adults are responsible for the next generation, he said, and they are the ones most often taken and sold. Some species can take as long as 20 years to reach sexual maturity.

Secondly, the rate of young turtles who make it to adulthood is low, he said, as most of the turtle species in the state are slow to grow and reproduce.

"The hatchlings don't have a high survivability rate," Dillman said. "It takes a large number of offspring to replace one adult."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551