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A New Jersey man was sentenced in federal court in Tulsa after pleading guilty for conspiring with others to purchase, transport and sell more than 1,000 box turtles unlawfully collected in Oklahoma, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said.

Two Oklahoma Game Wardens, Carlos Gomez and Karlin Bailey, were key players in the months-long investigation involving the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma was able to secure the federal conviction 16 months later.

Chief U.S. District Judge John E. Dowdell ordered William T. Gangemi, 27 of Freehold, N.J., to pay $250,000 in restitution to the Oklahoma Wildlife Department and a $100,000 fine to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and also put him on two years of probation.

Nathan Erdman, Chief of Law Enforcement for the Wildlife Department, said this case required assistance from officers across the nation. “First, Game Wardens Bailey and Gomez did an outstanding job with this investigation. This is a prime example of how a simple phone call from a concerned citizen can lead to large cases and convictions.

“I would like to thank the USFWS for their assistance with this case, and also I would like to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Oklahoma, for the prosecution.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Amy Leuders said, “It’s been an honor for us to work with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in bringing this case to justice, and for sending a message that crimes against wildlife will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, every day, crimes are committed against wildlife. But whenever a wildlife poacher or trafficker is held accountable for their crimes, it gives us a precedent case that allows us to better protect these resources for generations to come. In addition, the court-ordered restitution funds will go toward vital conservation programs that will mitigate damage caused by poaching and wildlife smuggling.

The investigation began with a phone call from a concerned citizen.

A Mannford, Okla., hotel housekeeper entered a room after being told for a week not to clean it and discovered a large number of turtles. Her phone call to authorities eventually led to taking down one of the biggest wildlife smuggling operations in the United States.

From May 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018, Gangemi knowingly facilitated the purchase and transport of unlawfully collected three-toed and plains (ornate) box turtles from Oklahoma to New Jersey in order to sell them for profit. In Oklahoma, the collection of both types of box turtles for commercial purposes is against the law.

By smuggling the turtles, Gangemi violated the Lacey Act, a federal law that makes it a felony to engage in the sale or purchase of protected wildlife. Box turtles reach sexual maturity at about 10 years old and have a high nest and juvenile mortality rate. Due to these factors, turtle harvest can have highly detrimental effects on populations.

Shores said Gangemi was part of a syndicate of wildlife smugglers that exchanged turtles between the United States and China. “I can’t say that I ever expected we’d be announcing a turtle smuggling prosecution, but I’ve learned just how prevalent this criminal enterprise is globally and the detrimental impact it has on our wildlife population in Oklahoma, not just today but for future generations. I’m proud of this case and the result it achieved to better protect Oklahoma wildlife.”