Here’s the latest plea in the ongoing Operation Crash rhino horn initiative:

Auction House and Company’s President Plead Guilty to Wildlife Smuggling Conspiracy
Jan. 14, 2015

Elite Estate Buyers Inc., doing business as Elite Decorative Arts, an auction house located in Boynton Beach, Fla., and the company’s president and owner, Christopher Hayes, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Miami to an illegal wildlife trafficking and smuggling conspiracy in which the auction house sold rhinoceros horns and objects made from rhino horn, elephant ivory and coral that were smuggled from the United States to China.

The prosecution of Elite and Hayes is part of Operation Crash, a continuing effort by the Special Investigations Unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in coordination with the Department of Justice to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns.

According to records filed in court, Hayes and his company sold six endangered black rhino horns. Two of the horns were sold for $80,500 to a Texas resident involved in smuggling the horns to China. Two more rhino horns were purchased by an undercover FWS special agent. Another undercover agent with the FWS consigned two horns for auction.

As part of the plea agreement, Hayes and Elite have admitted to being part of a far reaching felony conspiracy in which the company helped smugglers traffic in endangered and protected species in interstate and foreign commerce, and falsified records and shipping documents related to the wildlife purchases in order to avoid the scrutiny of the FWS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Elite aided foreign buyers by directing them to third-party shipping stores that were willing to send the wildlife out of the country with false paperwork.

Elite and Hayes also admitted to selling items made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral to an antiques dealer in Canada, who they then directed to a local shipper that agreed to mail the items in Canada without required permits. The defendants also admitted to selling raw rhinoceros horns, which they believed were from a black rhinoceros, to a person in Texas.

Elite has agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine and to no longer engage in the receipt, consignment or sale of endangered or protected wildlife, or items containing endangered or protected wildlife, including items containing rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and red coral.

The investigation is continuing and is being handled by the FWS Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald for the Southern District of Florida and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Environmental Crimes Section.

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