The 33-year-old Holly Hill man charged with violating federal laws prohibiting the possession and sale of specific endangered species of animals is also now facing multiple state charges in connection with the case.
Steven Baker, nicknamed “Turtle Man,” was arrested Aug. 1 at his Brelands Road residence near the Boyer community for allegedly violating the federal Lacey Act. The arrest followed a year-long, multi-agency undercover operation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He has since been released from jail on an unsecured $25,000 bond.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Region 3 Capt. Robert McCullough reported that on Aug. 6, his agency charged Baker with two counts of unlawful possession of spotted turtles, two counts of unlawful possession of diamondback terrapins and one count of unlawful possession of an American alligator.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000, McCullough said. If convicted on all the state counts, Baker could be sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000.
If convicted on the federal charges, Baker could face a maximum of five years in federal prison and a $20,000 fine.
When federal, state and local law enforcement officers raided Baker’s residence last week, he was served with a federal warrant and numerous animals found in his residence and outside on his property were confiscated by Orangeburg County Animal Control officers and other agents.
According to Baker’s bond conditions, approved by U.S. Magistrate Bristow Marchant, he must submit to the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office. In addition, Baker’s travel is restricted to the states of South Carolina and Florida, unless a probation officer grants permission for other requested travel. He also must not sell or purchase any wildlife.
The Berkeley County Hill-Finklea Detention Center confirmed Wednesday that Baker was held at the center Aug. 5-6 on an unrelated charge of nonpayment of child support. He has since been released.
In the complaint affidavit on file with a U.S. Department of Justice office in Florida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Neil Gardner stated that neither Baker nor his business, listed as Southeastern Reptile Locators, had permits to possess spotted turtles.
In addition to the allegation that Baker knowingly and illegally possessed spotted turtles, agents also allege that Baker unlawfully transported yellow belly turtles. Gardner stated in the affidavit that Baker did not have permits to lawfully sell or transport yellow belly turtles.
Federal agents became aware of Baker’s purported turtle trade when a federal undercover agent contacted a reptile dealer about purchasing spotted turtles.
The dealer told the undercover officer that Baker sometimes delivered spotted turtles to retailers in Florida.
On Aug. 18, 2012, according to the affidavit, Baker met the undercover officer in the parking garage adjacent to the Daytona Beach Reptile Breeders Exposition, where the undercover officer paid him a total of $1,200 for 17 spotted turtles, representing the wholesale market value price.
The affidavit states, “Based on an average of two domestically advertised prices from established businesses, the calculated market value of the spotted turtles unlawfully transported in interstate commerce totaled approximately $9,179.49.”
From April to May 2013, Baker and the undercover officer maintained contact via email, text messaging, telephone and Facebook concerning additional orders for spotted turtles and other species.
On May 22, 2013, the undercover officer in Florida received a shipment from Baker of 18 spotted turtles and 20 yellow belly turtles, the affidavit said. The undercover officer paid $1,710 for the shipment via PayPal online
“Based on an average of domestically advertised prices from established businesses, the calculated market value of the unlawfully transported wildlife in the shipment was approximately $10,152.06,” the document noted.
In addition, the Charleston Post and Courier reported Tuesday that Ray Roberson, 68, of Cottageville was charged with violating the Lacey Act in a separate case. Federal authorities claim they made three sales with him involving yellow belly, Eastern box, spotted and mud turtles.
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