Suspicious that a package shipped from Hong Kong might contain smuggled animals, U.S. agents who opened the package found three live king cobra snakes hidden in potato chip cans. The man who was to receive the package outside Los Angeles has been arrested on federal charges.
Rodrigo Franco, 34, could face 20 years in prison on a charge of illegally importing merchandise, federal prosecutors said Tuesday. U.S. officials accuse him of violating the Endangered Species Act and falsifying records.
The package had been sent via the U.S. Postal Service. Each of the deadly king cobra snakes that were sent to Franco's address were about 2 feet long, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. In addition to the venomous snakes, agents found three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles when they opened the parcel on March 2.
Agents who searched the package removed the cobras but allowed the turtles to be delivered to Franco's address the next day under controlled circumstances before carrying out a raid, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in announcing the charges.
When agents from the FWS and the Homeland Security Department executed a search warrant at Franco's home, they found that the package had been left in what looked to be a child's bedroom. There, more animals were found living in tanks, including a baby Morelet's crocodile, two types of snapping turtles and five terrapins.
Franco returned home while agents were at his apartment in Monterey Park. Under questioning, he told them he had received 20 king cobras in two earlier shipments — and that they had died, prosecutors said. But analysis of records on his phone led agents to believe that at least some of those snakes had survived, because Franco had mentioned feeding them and delivering five snakes.
As for the location of those snakes, the suspect "said that one of his contacts in China had a cousin that flew to Los Angeles from Virginia, collected the snakes, and returned to Virginia," the federal affidavit against Franco states, noting that the suspect had claimed the snakes were dead.
The package had initially been flagged by an agriculture specialist of Customs and Border Protection — who opened it under suspicion that it might contain drugs, based on the shipper's address. When they saw something moving, they called inspectors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The shipper's address was also recognized by Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Stephanie Johnson, whose portion of the affidavit mentions having an online exchange with the Hong Kong provider last year that included an offer of selling venomous snakes.
Johnson lays out the discovery in the court document:
"I directed the Wildlife Inspectors and the CBP Agricultural Specialists to not open the small potato chip canisters until we could take them to a more controlled and safe environment. However, while I was interviewing Agricultural Specialist [Jaime] Pimentel (described above), WI [Cory] Kawabata opened one of the canisters and verified there was a snake inside (at the time, the snake was passive and did not attempt to strike at WI Kawabata)."
Passive or no, the rest of the canisters were run through an X-ray machine.
With the king cobras intercepted, the agents had to figure out what to do with them.
According to court documents, FWS Special Agent Erin Dean had verified the snakes were king cobras by sending photographs to Ian Recchio, the reptile curator at the Los Angeles Zoo. But Recchio said he couldn't house the snakes at his zoo because it didn't have anti-venom to protect against possible bites.
Recchio told Dean "that if someone had been bitten by one of the cobras, they likely would have died as there is not a ready source of anti-venom that he knew about in Los Angeles," the affidavit states, noting that the closest source, at San Diego's zoo, was too far for someone with a king cobra bite to travel.
Agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they believe Franco had been exchanging rare animals with a contact in Hong Kong for several months.
On the same day the snakes were found in a can, Franco shipped a package containing six turtles — desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles and Florida box turtles — to an address in Hong Kong. That package was also intercepted by U.S. officials.