Hawaii Couple Sentenced in Wildlife Smuggling Operation

Press Release
Hawaii Couple Sentenced in Wildlife Smuggling Operation

HONOLULU, Hawaii — Liliani and James Muti have been sentenced for conspiracy to traffic and illegally sell bone carvings and jewelry made from protected whales, sea turtles, and other wildlife. The sentencing, which took place on September 6, was the culmination of a two-year joint undercover investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Office of Law Enforcement.

The defendants, owners of Old Hawaii Arts & Crafts, had previously pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiring to smuggle wildlife parts into and out of the United States, as well as sell wildlife parts in violation of the Lacey Act.  In addition to forfeiture of property worth up to approximately $270,000, the Honorable Senior Judge Helen Gillmor in the U.S. District Court of Hawaii sentenced the couple to six months of home incarceration, five years of probation, and a $40,000 fine. They had faced a maximum of five-years imprisonment for violating the Lacey Act.

“This Office is committed to the investigation and prosecution of anyone attempting to profit from the illegal trafficking and sale of protected wildlife.  The prosecution here demonstrates that those who elect to do so will face consequences for their actions,” said Judy Philips, First Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Hawaii.

In December 2016, undercover agents purchased whalebone carvings from Old Hawaii Arts & Crafts at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. The defendants told agents that most of the whale jewelry had been carved in Hawaii, when in fact the pieces had been part of an April 2016 import shipment from Tonga that was intercepted by federal agents. A search warrant conducted at the defendants’ residence resulted in the seizure of more than 2,000 bone carvings, a sea turtle shell, and a walrus skull. It is the largest seizure of whalebone in Hawaii history.

“NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is dedicated to the protection of marine wildlife,” said James Landon, NOAA’s Director of Law Enforcement. “We work tirelessly to investigate and bring to justice such egregious violations of our marine resource laws, such as seen in this case. We're thankful for our partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with whom we will continue to work together to end wildlife trafficking." 

Edward Grace, Acting Assistant Director of the Office of Law Enforcement for the Service, added: “We are committed to protecting imperiled species both at home and abroad. The successful prosecution is thanks to dedicated work of our, and NOAA’s, special agents who tirelessly work to protect and conserve the world’s wildlife. Together, we will continue to combat the illegal wildlife trade and will bring those who choose to break the law to justice.”

Humpback whales and sea turtles are listed as Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by more than 180 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets.