Grand jury indicts central Arkansas man tied to salamander imports

A 25-year-old Conway man was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges of violating the Endangered Species Act by importing six giant Chinese salamanders from China over two years, ending last month.

According to court documents, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an investigation in 2015 after receiving detailed information from a reptile enthusiast who reported being approached on Facebook by someone wanting to sell and transport various reptiles into and out of the country, in violation of U.S. and foreign laws.

The reptile enthusiast, who a wildlife agent said lawfully collects various species of snakes, provided information that eventually led to Jackson Roe's arrest last month, ahead of this week's grand jury meeting.

The enthusiast provided wildlife officials with information from the Facebook account of a man who lived in Shanghai who had offered to sell various species of snakes, according to a criminal complaint written by the agent.

The complaint detailed how agents monitored the Shanghai man's Facebook activity for several months, and in the process noticed that the man routinely posted photographs of different species of reptiles and amphibians that appeared to be in captivity, like in a plastic tub.

An undercover agent, saying he lived in Chicago, asked the Shanghai man if he had any salamanders for sale and said the man replied that he did and could ship them to Chicago. But four months later, when the undercover agent inquired again, the Shanghai man said he could no longer ship live animals because "my exporter got some problems."

About 10 months later, in January 2017, the source alerted the undercover agent about three venomous Asian tiger snakes, which aren't endangered, that he had ordered from the Shanghai man through Facebook, indicating that the Chinese man was still in operation.

Wildlife agents had to euthanize the snakes, according to the complaint, "because of the difficult care required for captivity." But the purchase prompted the agent to contact the seller again in search of turtles for sale.

It said the Shanghai man offered to ship turtles to the undercover officer after "the election."

Meanwhile, the complaint said, another federal wildlife agent in Los Angeles saw advertisements of animals for sale on the Shanghai man's Facebook page in January 2017.

The undercover agent who had first inquired about the turtles contacted the man again about Malaysian box turtles, which under an international treaty require a permit to ship. The man offered to sell three of the turtles for $100 each plus shipping, without discussing the required export permit, and two days later shipped them from Hong Kong, the complaint states.

It said the agent received a package 10 days later with a shipping label identifying the contents as "porcelain cup samples." Inside was a wrapped box containing toy cars, and underneath the toy cars were three plastic jars, each of which had holes cut in them, and each of which contained a single living Malaysian box turtle.

"During this multistate investigation, other unlawful shipments of wildlife into the United States were connected to [the shipper]," according to the complaint.

On Jan. 13, 2017, it said, a package from Hong Kong that was addressed to Roe in Conway arrived at the International Mail Facility in Chicago. Though its labels said it contained "plastic box sample," inside were two live Chinese giant salamanders in plastic jars with wet moss. The complaint noted that "there were holes in the jars, but no holes in the box for air."

The reptiles were taken to the Brookfield Zoo to verify their species, and for housing and veterinary care, the complaint states.

The complaint said wildlife officials executed a federal search warrant March 17, 2017, on the Shanghai man's Facebook account and found conversations between him and Roe that began Oct. 16, 2016, and ended Jan. 26, 2017. It showed the men sharing photographs of rare and endangered species, and made arrangements for the Chinese man to ship the salamanders to Roe's address on Canal Place in Conway, the complaint says.

The narrative indicates that the shipper also sent two "giant babys" to Roe at a new address on Indian Hills Drive in Conway on Jan. 9, but that the package was lost.

Another package addressed to Roe and containing a live Vietnamese black-breasted leaf turtle was intercepted in Chicago on June 11, 2017, by a wildlife-sniffing dog, the report said. The document said officials sent the parcel, with its original packaging and labels, to a federal wildlife agent in Conway, for a "controlled delivery" to Roe.

A postal inspector obtained a signature from Roe's father, Barry Roe, on June 20, 2017, which led to a federal search warrant being executed at the Indian Hills Drive home of Roe's parents on Aug. 1, 2017, and the seizure of one frozen turtle and two live turtles, according to the complaint.

It said Roe, now living on Watkins Street in Conway, admitted later that day that he had several live amphibians, including the three Chinese giant salamanders that he knew were federally protected.

Roe admitted that he had received about seven packages from Hong Kong that contained six giant Chinese salamanders, one Vietnamese leaf turtle, one Indian roofed turtle and one Chinese big-headed turtle, the complaint said. It said he told agents that he sold the Indian roofed turtle for $800 and had a buyer willing to pay $500 for the big-headed turtle, which the agents seized.

The agents also seized a Nile crocodile, a Morelet's crocodile and an American alligator from his parents' garage, and other imported animals at his parents' house, the complaint says.

Then, two years later on Oct. 9, 2019, a manager of a Conway pet store alerted wildlife officials that he had hired Jackson Roe and had learned that he had Chinese giant salamanders, an American alligator, a green mamba and a Gaboon viper, the complaint says.

The pet shop manager said Roe told him he had three bedrooms containing live amphibians and reptiles, all purchased from a Chinese dealer, the complaint says. Roe also told the man that he'd had other endangered animals but they had been seized by federal wildlife officials, according to the complaint.

Another search warrant was executed Nov. 1 at Roe's home, now on Tailhook Drive in Conway, and agents seized several animals, including two live Chinese giant salamanders and four dead ones, according to the complaint.

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