A Monterey Park man was sentenced Monday to five months in federal prison and two years of supervised release for smuggling three highly venomous king cobras coiled up in potato chip canisters.
In a plea agreement, Rodrigo Franco, 34, admitted smuggling another 20 cobras, as well as sending protected turtles to Hong Kong. Prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence of no more than 18 months in exchange for the plea.
Franco's defense attorney asked that he be given only five years probation.
Franco was also ordered to pay a $4,500 fine.
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"Reptiles are my passion,'' Franco, an ex-auto mechanic, wrote to Judge George H. Wu, who sentenced Franco in Los Angeles federal court.
In early March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspected a package sent from Hong Kong and discovered three live black-and-yellow king cobra snakes -- protected and highly poisonous reptiles -- each 2 feet long.
Prosecutors said a king cobra can kill an adult within 30 minutes if anti-venom is not available. At the time of the offense, "there was no known king cobra anti-venom in Los Angeles," and a customs officer's hand came within inches of one of the snakes -- described as "passive" and perhaps ailing -- when she opened one of the canisters, according to court papers.
In addition to the three snakes, the parcel being sent through the mail contained three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles.
On the same date, Franco also mailed six protected turtles -- desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles and ornate box turtles -- from the United States to Hong Kong, but that shipment also was intercepted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Because of the danger associated with the cobras, the snakes were seized from the package that had come from Hong Kong. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service made a controlled delivery of the soft-shelled turtles to Franco's home. Immediately after the package -- with turtles removed -- was delivered, federal agents executed a search warrant at the residence.
While searching the home, agents found the package that originated in Hong Kong in a children's bedroom, in which they also discovered a tank containing a live baby crocodile and tanks containing alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamond back terrapins -- all of which are protected species, according to investigators.
During a subsequent interview with authorities, Franco admitted that he had previously received 20 king cobras in two prior shipments -- but he said all of those snakes had died in transit, federal prosecutors said.
During the ensuing investigation, authorities obtained evidence from Franco's phone, which contained messages in which he and someone in Asia allegedly discussed shipping turtles and snakes between the United States and Asia. The messages indicate that Franco had previously received live cobras from his contact in Asia and was going to give five of the snakes to a relative of his contact, according to prosecutors.
Cobras and other reptiles are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement designed to save threatened species from endangerment and illegal trade. King cobras sell for about $2,000 each on the black market, officials said.