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Undercover operation leads to charges in alleged SoCal trafficking operation involving snakes, other reptiles

An undercover operation led to wildlife trafficking charges against a former Los Angeles resident over an alleged operation that spanned multiple states and included regular shipments of snakes and other critters out of LAX, according to a federal complaint and arrest warrant filed on March 21.

Siren
(File photo)

David Sneddon, originally from Orlando, Florida, allegedly operated out of his residences in Los Angeles and then Las Vegas. He collected native snakes, lizards, tarantulas and other reptiles from California, including Borrego Springs and Joshua Tree, as well as other states such as Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Some species were venomous.

The reptiles were then sold, typically 25 to 30 per package, and shipped all over the U.S. in Tupperware containers without food or water, the complaint alleges.

After receiving a tip about two years ago, undercover federal agents and informants purchased thousands of dollars of blue speckled rattlesnakes, a Mojave shovel-nosed snake, a Great Basin gopher snake and other reptiles from Sneddon over the last two years, according to the complaint.

An undercover federal agent, posing under the name Jonathan Nix with a Venmo username of Snakewrangler-55, made payments to Sneddon for the shipments. The Venmo transaction history between the two also includes a $600 refund paid by Sneddon for a Gila monster (venomous lizard) that died unexpectedly before shipment.

In addition to a wide array of snakes, Sneddon’s inventory allegedly included $20 for Arizona blond tarantulas, $40 for southern desert horned lizards and $65 for Sonoran desert toads.

The undercover purchases continued through March 17, four days before the complaint was filed in federal court.

The complaint alleges that Sneddon intentionally mislabeled packages to avoid detection by law enforcement, which creates public safety concerns for anyone who handles the packages, the complaint said.

Reached through Facebook, Sneddon said his attorney advised him to avoid speaking publicly about the charges.

The complaint also mentioned some of the payments on Sneddon’s Venmo account.

In a phone interview, one owner of a San Diego-based snake removal company said he sold Sneddon — in a transaction unrelated to the alleged trafficking — a spider ball python for his daughter and some motorcycle parts. The owner of the company, who requested anonymity to avoid being linked to the charges against Sneddon, said that they were not involved in any other business together. They became acquainted through the online community of reptile aficionados, he added.

Andy Blue, Ramona campus director for the San Diego Humane Society, said there are a lot of adverse effects of wildlife trafficking. For example, he said traffickers may not check whether the animals are pregnant, in which case they shouldn’t be transported. It also causes an “interruption of nature” for the reptiles and the mice and other species they prey upon.

“It does certainly impact the entire ecosystem when you take reptiles out of any of these areas in the southwest,” Blue said. “It really creates an imbalance in the ecosystem.”

Blue added that social media groups are a common way that animals are traded these days.

The complaint was shared initially in a tweet by Seamus Hughes, a counterterrorism expert who currently serves as deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The document is available to the public on the federal court’s online records-retrieval system.

Sneddon’s alleged trafficking is in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law passed in 1900, according to the complaint. Penalties for Lacey Act violations can involve incarceration and fines, depending on the nature of the offense, according to the Justice Department’s website.

An arraignment has been scheduled for April 28.


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