A flight attendant for a Chinese airline pleaded guilty Thursday to attempting to smuggle two-dozen spotted and box turtles in a carry-on bag from Los Angeles to China.
Huaqian Qu, a Chinese national, entered his plea in downtown Los Angeles to a federal charge of conspiracy, which carries a possible penalty of up to five years behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Sentencing was set for July 23.
Qu and co-defendant Renfeng Gao -- also a China Eastern Airlines flight crew member -- unlawfully attempted to export a total of 45 turtles, which are protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora -- known as CITES -- last month in carry-on baggage for a China Eastern Airlines flight to Shanghai.
"Neither defendant Qu nor anyone else had obtained the required export permit for these CITES-protected turtles or filed a declaration for exporting these animals," according to a factual basis for Qu's plea, filed in Los Angeles federal court.
Gao is scheduled to plead guilty to the conspiracy count Friday before U.S. District Judge S. James Otero.
Profit appeared to be the motive. The reptiles could be worth more than $40,000 in Asia, where there is a "robust" market for turtle species native to the United States, court papers show.
Qu and Gao were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on May 12 with 10 protected spotted turtles and 14 box turtles hidden in pillowcases and plastic bags packed in Qu's China Eastern work luggage. Gao carried 21 spotted turtles in his bag, court papers show.
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It wasn't Qu's first time, prosecutors contend. He is suspected of having smuggled a dozen turtles in Styrofoam boxes inside his carry-on bags from LAX to China in January, according to court papers.
But last month, a random X-ray luggage check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration at LAX detected "unusual round objects" in Qu's bags during a routine inspection, according to an affidavit supporting a criminal complaint filed in the case.
The TSA inspector who flagged the luggage said he recognized that the bags contained turtles, "based on his enthusiasm for turtles as a teenager," the document states.