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When turtles fly: Reptile smuggler gets prison time for snack-box stunt

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Atsushi Yamagami was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay about $18,000 in fines for his "leadership role" in smuggling 55 live turtles and tortoises into the U.S. in snack food boxes inside of a suitcase. 

The Japan-based ringleader was sentenced Monday in Los Angeles. The 40-year-old from Osaka, Japan, belived to be involved in a years-long illegal import operation, pleaded guilty last year to one felony count of smuggling.

Yamagami has been in custody for the past 15 months. He has six months left of his sentence before he is permitted to return home, said U.S. District Judge George H. King. 

Defense attorney Kiana Sloan-Hillier told the court that federal detention had been unusually hard on the defendant, saying, "He's a very small person and alone," adding that he received very few visitors and did not speak English.

Norihide Ushirozako, a second man involved in the snack box debacle, was sentenced last August to the nearly seven months in prison he served following his arrest. 50-year-old Ushirozako, who carried the reptiles, pleaded guilty to a smuggling charge.

According to court papers, the men intended to sell or trade the animals at a Pomona reptile show.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service running and undercover investigation called "Operation Flying Turtle," infiltrated the ring in July 2010, purchasing protected species from a person connected to Yamagami. The animals are protected by an international endangered species agreement and can only be imported with a permit.

An associate of the defendant, Hiroki Uetsuki, was found with 42 turtles and tortoises hidden inside his checked luggage during a trip from Osaka to Honolulu in August 2010. Uetsuki told officials that Yamagami paid him for travel expenses and approximately 100,000 yen (roughly $1,200) to smuggle the animals into the United States.

The reptiles seized in the Yamagami case were donated to educational institutes throughout the Southern California, said prosecutors.


Lisa Brenner can be reached via Twitter @lisa_brenner

With contributions from AP

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