Scott Flaherty 916-978-6156
MONTEREY, Calif.-- Restitution and contributions collected as a result of a recent federal prosecution of a church-based poaching operation that removed thousands of undersized California leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay will be used to create a $1.5 million partnership fund that will help restore habitat for sharks and other wildlife, federal law enforcement officials announced today.
Speaking at a press conference at Monterey Bay Aquarium, United States Attorney Kevin V. Ryan joined representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to announce the partnership fund. The fund includes a $500,000 contribution by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC) which includes the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, and more than $410,000 in restitution assessed to its pastor, Kevin Thompson, and five co-defendants. The California Coastal Conservancy will add $300,000 to the fund, and another $300,000 will be added through the combined contributions of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
"The prosecution of this case casts a bright light on the dark world of illegal worldwide trading in protected wildlife," said Paul Chang, Special Agent in Charge of the Service's Pacific Region Law Enforcement Office in Portland., Ore. "These sharks were shipped illegally from California to profit-motivated dealers throughout the United States and Europe. The work of our special agents across the country demonstrates that if you are buying or selling protected wildlife you will be caught, and you will pay a price for breaking wildlife laws."
California's investigation, led by Game Warden Rebecca Hartman, focused on Ira Gass of Azusa, Calif., who had continued poaching sharks even after being previously prosecuted by the state for the illegal take and possession of undersized leopard sharks. The Service started its investigation in 2003 when San Diego-based Special Agent Lisa Nichols received a tip that a group of people was harvesting leopard sharks at night from San Francisco Bay. It wasn?t long until Nichols learned of similar poaching investigations by Special Agent Dave Kirkby in
"I got a call from Dave Kirkby in Chicago who told me the small sharks were showing up in Chicago and other places in the Midwest. Then I learned that Roy Torres was already in the middle of his own investigation in
The far-reaching, three-year investigation involved enforcement officers from California Department of Fish & Game, the
Nichols, a 13-year veteran of Service law enforcement, said good communication between the multiple agencies and agents was critical to the success of the investigation. "Communicating information to each other, ensuring each of us knew what the others were doing and in a way that wouldn't alert the subjects was probably the most challenging part of the investigation," she said.
While communication was important, it's a memory of executing a court-ordered search of Thompson's home with other agents in 2005 that is still with her.
"During our search we encountered incredible amounts of religious education materials that promoted morality, truth and ethical living," recalled Nichols. "I simply couldn't understand how he could be preaching morality to his church members while at the same time he was knowingly leading an illegal poaching operation. It still angers me today."
Thompson, 48, and five others were indicted on federal Lacey Act charges in January 2006. The Lacey Act prohibits the interstate commercialization of wildlife taken in violation of state laws.
Thompson later pleaded guilty to one Lacey Act charge, admitting that between 1992 and 2003, he led other church members in a scheme to illegally catch and sell undersized leopard sharks to aquarium dealers in the
The five other defendants pleaded guilty to Lacey Act charges and admitted to the following in their plea agreements:
John Newberry, 34, of Hayward,
Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, was a member of the Church and admitted that from 1996-2003, he caught and sold undersized
Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland, acknowledged that from 2001-2004, he bought and sold undersized
Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa, Calif., admitted that from 1996 to 2003, he purchased the undersized California leopard sharks taken from the San Francisco Bay and sold them to other marine aquaria dealers throughout the U. S., and abroad. When shipping the sharks, Mr. Gass intentionally mislabeled them as "common sharks" in order to avoid detection by wildlife inspectors. The sharks were sold for $50-$75 each. In addition to paying $100,000 restitution, Mr. Gass was sentenced Feb. 5, 2007, to eight months in prison and three years of supervised release.
Sion Lim, 39, a citizen of
The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey,
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.
More information about federal wildlife protection laws is available on the Internet at http://www.fws.gov/le/ .