Southwest Florida's turtle numbers in peril as agencies clash, poaching bust fizzles

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

What was touted as a precedent-setting surgical strike against Southwest Florida’s shadowy turtle trafficking trade now appears to have largely unraveled two years later, leaving wildlife advocates frustrated.

In 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission threw a press conference announcing its largest turtle poaching bust in recent history.

The normally reserved agency summoned reporters and photographers to its Fort Myers office, where a series of officers and officials took turns stepping to the microphone to reveal the scope of their success.

Some of the turtles seized from traffickers by FWC officers.

A pair of Fort Myers men, then-39-year-old ringleader Michael Boesenberg and helper Michael Clemons, then 23, faced dozens of charges for taking thousands of native Florida turtles from the wild to sell on a thriving black market. Over six months, agents documented more than 4,000 turtles snatched and sold.

They flashed image after image of turtles packed into kiddie pools and piled into plastic bins: delicately colored box turtles, gold-striped mud turtles, tiny chicken turtles, long-snouted softshells and rare diamondback terrapins, all originally destined for Asia, where they’re prized as high-status pets that can retail for up to $10,000 per specimen.

“It’s a cultural thing there to have turtles around,” said renowned Florida herpetologist Chris Lechowicz, who’s been studying Sanibel Island’s turtle population for almost two decades with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, where he’s the nonprofit’s longtime wildlife and habitat management program director. “And the more rare the turtle, the more pretty the turtle, the more prosperous you are.”

Unfortunately for the creatures, he says, “Florida box turtles are just gorgeous … some of them are just unbelievable and they pay thousands and thousands of dollars for them. Some box turtles can go for as much as $20,000 apiece.” He gestures to a soon-to-be-released softball-sized male in a nearby crate. “The pandemic did not slow anything down. Turtles are in high demand, and they’re getting ripped out of their environment all over the Earth right now for food, for traditional medicine and the pet trade.”

When officers served their search warrant at Boesenberg’s San Carlos Park home in August of 2019, they found hundreds of live turtles, worth an estimated $200,000 on the black market, along with pieces of federally protected sea turtles and black bear body parts.

With this high-profile, high-dollar takedown, officials promised they were taking a bite out of turtle trafficking.

“Putting a stop to this criminal enterprise is a significant win for conservation,” FWC law enforcement chief, Col. Curtis Brown, said at the time.

'A pathetic lack of justice'

Florida’s turtles are in peril, as poaching and habitat loss drive them ever closer to extinction. With these arrests, the FWC snipped two fundamental links in the chain, they said, tallying 26 separate counts that could have amounted to thousands in fines and multi-year prison terms.

Craig Stanford, one of the international experts the FWC tapped for comment, added strong language to the press release announcing the bust: "This sinister and illegal trade," he wrote, "threatens the future of many species of North American animals, and as one of the most threatened animal groups on the planet, turtles are at the forefront of our concern.”

Fast-forward two years: Both men are free. Stanford, who chairs the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. is dismayed at what he calls a “pathetic lack of justice" in the case against the traffickers.

Clemons is serving 48 months of probation after pleading guilty to dealing in stolen property. He can’t possess turtles outside of his home, said State Attorney’s office spokeswoman Samantha Syoen.

Boesenberg paid a $100 fine for a single count of conspiracy and reported Feb. 28 of last year for an 18-month federal sentence. In August, his wife wrote the judge begging for help because of COVID and financial hardships and he was released early. 

What’s more, the feds stepped in to relieve the Florida agency who’d originated the case of its role in his prosecution, and all records of the state's original case have been electronically walled off from public inspection.

A box turtle is documented March 30 at Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. SCCF is working on saving the turtle population on the island, which has been targeted by poachers. SCCF is tagging and marking the turtles to deter the criminals.

The consequences are just a slap on the wrist, says Florida wildlife attorney Elise Bennett. They will do do little to discourage “these shady enterprises or reflect the deep harm these criminals inflict on the environment and on society collectively … These fines mean nothing when they're making hundreds of thousands of dollars off of these rare turtles in the pet trade.”

So what happened? How did the bust go, well, bust?

The tale is one of agency infighting and stonewalling, with the taxpayers who’ve footed the bill for efforts to protect our common resources left in the dark about what happened – or didn’t.

All the records of the state’s case against Boesenberg and Clemons are blocked from public view online, while the feds who’ve taken the case say it’s now part of an ongoing investigation, so they can’t comment.

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There are hints the Fort Myers prosecutions were sacrificed in the service of a larger one, that the state agency offended its federal big brother by overstepping its bounds, but wildlife advocates won’t point fingers publicly. Too much is at stake they say, as turtle populations continue to plummet, to risk fouling relationships with an agency they must work with regularly.

So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Justice have not responded to repeated requests for interviews about what happened. “We aren’t able to discuss our charging decisions and the deliberative process,” said the DOJ’s Marlene Rodriguez, while Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Christina Meister said because the case was still open, the agency can’t comment.

Florida’s FWC is similarly mum because they handed it off to the feds, said spokeswoman Melody Kilborn.

All this leaves the citizens and taxpayers without answers, says First Amendment Foundation Staff Attorney Virginia Hamrick.

“By moving it from one agency to the other, then not speaking about it, the public is left in the dark, with no insight into what was done,” Hamrick said. “There’s a lack of accountability.”

Ask Patrick McLain, Boesenberg’s Fort Myers defense attorney, for insight, and he’ll say his client was caught off-guard when the state made its move. 

“I actually think he's just a good old boy, who got sucked into this,” McLain said. “He's one of those guys who's a good guy, doesn't have much of a criminal record … Matter of fact, when the state arrested him, I was already talking to federal prosecutors,” he said, “I knew he was going to get indicted federally, prior to him being arrested, so the state arrest surprised us.”

If Boesenberg and Clemons were small-time players, as attorney McLain suggests, who were the big ones and what happened to them, Hamrick asks?

“If these defendants were the little fish, the public is still in the dark as to how big the investigation is … the public has no information about the scope (and) why the charges were dropped from so many,” Hamrick said.

Tracking helps in turtle poaching battle

Meanwhile, those in the trenches continue doing what they can to save the region’s turtles, with Sanibel Island becoming the epicenter of a high-tech effort to thwart this kind of crime and keep turtles safe.

The scarred-up old female box turtle doesn’t even flinch as the pellet goes in. The injection could have been a flu shot – a momentary needle prick that instead of vaccine, injects a passive integrated transponder tag, commonly called a microchip, that will allow researchers to scan and identify her.

Working with grad student and wildlife technician Mike Mills, Lechowicz keeps watch over the island’s turtles. After FWC made its arrests and freed the captured turtles, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation stepped up to help repatriate more than 300 of them – all now marked and identifiable – to native habitats.

The hope is the liberated reptiles will integrate with the island’s population, begin reproducing and undo some of the damage the traffickers did.

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It was especially gratifying for Lechowicz, who's gotten to know the island’s turtles over two decades. Since 2002, he's been documenting their lives, witnessing first-hand the squeeze trafficking has put on the reptiles. Because so much of Lee County’s turtle habitat has been swallowed by development, the sanctuary island, where nearly 70% of its land is preserved, has become a haven for turtles, a fact not lost on poachers.

“If they can’t get them elsewhere, they get them here,” he said.

Returning some of them to their birthplace felt good, Lechowicz acknowledged. Even before it started microchipping them, SCCF has long been capturing the island’s turtles, marking their shells with unique notches keyed to permanent records, the way wild birds are banded. Some of the creatures Boesenberg and Clemons poached came from his study population. Lechowicz knew them by their notches.

“It lets you track them over time,” he said. The marks also make them less attractive targets – not just because they’re marred (“The buyers of these don’t like imperfections,” Lechowicz said), but because poachers know marked turtles are monitored turtles.

A PIT tag is injected into a box turtle by Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation wildlife technician Mike Mills on March 30. The turtles are being caught for tracking purposes. The turtle population was severely impacted by a poaching ring and SCCF staff is working on saving the population on the island. The turtle was released back to the wild.

In recent years, tracking has gone even higher-tech with the addition of microchips, like the one the turtle matriarch had placed on a recent morning.

“These guys live to a very old age, it takes them a long time to mature and they lay only a few eggs at a time. Their strategy is to do that over their entire life,” Lechowicz said. “We stop having babies in our 30s and 40s, but they have babies into their 60s, 70s, and even beyond that if they’re still alive. So when you take adults out of the wild, it affects the population.”

“That’s why the poaching is so devastating,” adds Mills.

Once the turtle is chipped, he and Lechowicz load her up and truck her out to a preserve, where they let her go in the shade of old sabal palms and sea grapes. Lechowicz and colleagues have built a small army of volunteers to watch over the island’s turtles, giving them training and badges that identity them as part of the SCCF Terrestrial and Freshwater Turtle Research group.

 But that’s just a start, he says. More enforcement and awareness are critically necessary, he says, or Florida risks losing its turtles.

“You know how you see turtles crossing the road?” Lechowicz asks. “In some parts of Asia, that just doesn’t happen. They’re gone. There are no wild turtles there anymore.”

And as goes Asia, Lechowicz fears, so goes the rest of the world. “We expect there’s going to be a massive extinction in the next century,” and turtles have just surpassed primates as the most at-risk vertebrate group, he said.

Mike Mills, a wildlife technician for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation tries to locate a PIT tagged box turtle on March 30. SCCF is working on saving the turtle population on the island, which was hard-hit by a turtle poaching ring. SCCF is tagging and marking the turtles to deter poachers.

'I’m talking thousands and thousands and thousands of turtles.'

Trafficking in creatures – what FWC calls “the illegal commercialization of wildlife” may not get as much attention as guns, drugs and human smuggling, but is the fourth-ranked such crime, officials say, amounting to a $19 billion business in the U.S. alone. By way of comparison, YouTube, the online video service, is estimated to earn about $15 billion a year.

Poaching has exerted dire pressure on turtle populations, not just in Florida and the U.S., but overseas as well. In some parts of the world, as Lechowicz says, wild turtles have been all but wiped out. As poaching steadily removes reproducing adults from wild populations, the chronic depletion already has made a dent in Southwest Florida’s slow-breeding species.   

With 22 separate transactions identified in this operation alone, Lechowicz knows much more damage has been done, and is likely ongoing.

“(Poaching) just decimated who-knows-how-many populations,” he said. “And it’d been going on at least five years, multiple times a year – I’m talking thousands and thousands and thousands of turtles.”

In addition to insects, these omnivorous reptiles will eat carrion and fruit, thereby dispersing seeds. “So they’re giving energy back to environment,” Mills said. “They’re playing a big part in the ecosystem, but we can’t even fully comprehend how important to the ecosystem until they’re gone, and it’s too late by then.”

The way Boesenberg’s business worked was simple. He and associates hunted and gathered  turtles from the Southwest Florida’s wild places, then once he had enough stock on hand he would then sell to a buyer with links to Asian markets, FWC said. “Investigators determined that a ring of well-organized wildlife traffickers was illegally catching and selling wild turtles to large-scale reptile dealers and illegal distributors, who shipped most of them overseas on the black market.”

Though they concentrated on Lee County, poachers expanded their reach when local hunting grounds thinned out.

“Wild turtle populations cannot sustain the level of harvest that took place here,” said Dr. Brooke Talley, the Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Coordinator for the FWC. “This will likely have consequences for the entire ecosystem and is a detriment for our citizens and future generations.”

The poached turtles that sell wholesale for a few hundred dollars here can retail for up to $10,000 in Asia, where they’re prized as prestigious, lucky possessions.

Boesenberg’s attorney Patrick McClain suggests that’s where the big money changed hands, not in Florida. His client didn’t make big bucks for each animal, he says. “Mr. Boesenberg wasn’t paid a lot of money, but he kind of got enticed into this because he’d been a breeder in the past and he was good at it,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you: I think he was taken advantage of by sources bigger than him.”

Even so, FWC said their evidence showed the partners sold $60,000 worth of turtles a month, mostly for cash, but “occasionally trading turtles for marijuana products.”

Unfortunately, Stanford says, the rewards make poaching worth the risk and lax enforcement feeds that trend. Lechowicz agrees. “Compared to drugs and firearms, it’s really not a lot of risk when you consider the money you can make.”

So how to combat this burgeoning trade?

Educating judges would be a start, Lechowicz says. “A judge that’s just sentenced somebody for manslaughter for 10 years or 12 years in jail is going to find it hard to put somebody in jail for 10 years that took some turtles out of the wild.” But that hesitation needs to be overcome, because the damage such criminals do to natural systems and our collective resources is vast and incalculable, attorney Bennett says.

Also, “If you see someone taking turtles out of the wild, question them. Call somebody. Don’t just turn a blind eye,” Lechowicz said.

Another way would be to strengthen laws and consequences, says Bennett, the Florida wildlife attorney. In her work with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, she’s seen many cases of smugglers getting off easily. “In short, the punishments largely do not fit the crimes."

A meeting convened last February by the FWC left her hopeful change may be coming. At the event, the agency presented a legislative proposal to "strengthen wildlife trafficking regulations by establishing wildlife trafficking as a predicate violation under Florida's RICO (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization) Act." A predicate crime is one that can lead to a larger one and/or help establish a pattern of racketeering. 

Funding for the initiative was included in the agency’s annual budget request, currently making its way through the state’s legislative session in the senate and house, and “both appear to be moving along,” Bennett said. Session ends April 30.

Another potential puzzle piece may be tightening up on commercial turtle farms, she says, because often, such facilities are used as cover for illegal smuggling activities.

“I know that has been the case for at least one of the recent busts in Florida,” she said, “so this is a possible regulatory or enforcement loophole that could be closed to make it harder to traffic turtles to begin with. While Florida does have strong laws protecting wild turtles from commercial trapping – also a loophole for traffickers – they could do some work when it comes to turtle farming.”

A box turtle is documented at Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation on March 30. SCCF is tagging and marking the turtles, whose colorful shells make them hot commodities in the black market pet trade, to deter poachers.

But Lechowicz would be loath to shut down such farms, which he says could actually help satisfy the demand for pet turtles while easing the pressure on wild animals. He knows that notion is a tough sell to purists and academics who believe turtles should only in the wild, period.

“The pet trade in general gets a very bad rap, which is often well-deserved, but there are private breeders that really do care for the animals and they keep them going,” he said. “In the future, that may be all that’s left.”

Lechowicz understands the desire to have turtles. “It’s really hard to tell people not to have pets. If they came up to you and said, ‘OK. you can’t have dogs and cats anymore – we’re done,’ how many people do you think would listen? The best thing we can tell people is if you insist on getting one, do not get wild-caught animals. You don’t need to take animals out of the wild.”

'The Feds didn't like that'

While agencies have refused to le the public know what happened in the Boesenberg case, his defense attorney, Patrick McLain, offers some insight into clashing state and federal cases.

“The federal case is the one that was really guiding this thing, and they had been doing all the work, so I think the state case threatened the federal case a little bit, and the Feds didn't like that,” he said. “It was always going to be federal.”

It may well be, McLain says, that the state’s pursuit of this was an unpleasant surprise to the feds, because “No one knew – including the Feds – that the state was going to do this ... The Feds just work differently, the whole judicial system works differently,” McLain said.

How is it that those 26 charges the state developed dwindled to two federal charges?

McLain hesitates.

“Well, you're getting into an area that I don't want to go into a whole lot,” he said. “(But) as far as why it may have gone that way, is (Boesenberg) was bottom of the barrel, so to speak, in the chain of command, with a Chinese national, and various other people from the United States, involved in this trade. And they wanted all of them, and where the state wasn't going to be able to get all of them, the Feds are able get all of them, if that makes sense.”

Chris Lechowicz, a wildlife & habitat director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation releases a PIT tagged box turtle back to the wild on March 30.

So the feds were after a larger, multinational group, and Boesenberg was just the guy in Southwest Florida, picking these critters up?

“Correct.”

But still, what made the state charges go away? Was that part of a deal? 

McLain hesitates again. “Well the problem is, is you're asking me to tell you some things that I don't think I'm privileged to tell you,” he said. “I will tell you that the Feds talked to the state, at some point … and a decision was made, between the two agencies of where this was going to be prosecuted.

“Why they came up with that, I may have an opinion, but it'll be purely speculative, and I don't want to do that. Is that evasive enough for you?” 

Any hope of getting an explanation from someone on the federal side?

“I doubt it,” McLain said, “And I doubt you'll get an explanation from anyone on the state side, either.”

He will say that he and his client knew Boesenberg was in trouble.

“(But) the arresting agency was a state agency, not a federal agency. So that complicated this,” he said. “Normally, when you're under a federal investigation, many times the attorneys know it, and are trying to get to a position, prior to indictment, of working things out, so you don't have to go through an indictment. And that's what we were doing. So when the state arrests, that throws a monkey wrench into my negotiations with the Feds.”

Might this be bluntly characterized as one hand not knowing what the other one is doing?

“Yeah. I would say that might be accurate.”

The charges and what happened

Michael Boesenberg (DOB 02/05/1980 of Fort Myers)

·         F.S.S. 812.019(2) – Dealing in stolen property as an organizer

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(a)1 – 3 counts – Taking over the bag limit of turtles

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(a) – Over the possession limit of box turtles

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(c) – Sale and offer for sale turtle taken from the wild

·         The enabling statute for these violations of F.A.C 68A-6 is F.S. 379.4015(2)(a)1.

·         FAC 68A-6.004(4)(q)1(c) – 9 counts – Standard Caging Requirements for Captive Wildlife

·         F.S.S 379.2431 – Possession of marine turtle parts

·         F.A.C 68A-4.004(5) – Possession of black bear parts

·         F.S.S. 893.13(6)(a) –Possess cannabis over 20 grams

·         F.S.S. 893.13(1)(a)(2) –Possess with intent to sell/deliver

·         F.S.S. 893.13(6)(a) –Possess controlled substance (THC oil)

Michael Clemons (DOB 09/05/1996 Fort Myers, FL):

·         F.S.S. 812.019(1) –Dealing in stolen property

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(a)1 –2 counts –Taking over the bag limit of turtles

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(a) – Over the possession limit of box turtles

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002 (6)(c) – Sale and offer for sale turtle taken from the wild

·         F.A.C. 68A-25.002(6)(b) – Transporting wild caught turtles without a permit

— Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission