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Forfeiture filed for Hobby Lobby artifacts

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tablets edit

Cuneiform tablet. Photo courtesty ICE

Courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement

NEW YORK – Pursuant to an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations New York of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer and two of Hobby Lobby’s corporate affiliates, the United States filed civil complaint to forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae.

As alleged in the complaint, these ancient clay artifacts originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and were smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, contrary to federal law. Packages containing the artifacts were shipped to Hobby Lobby and the shipping labels on these packages falsely described cuneiform tablets as tile “samples.”

The government also filed a stipulation of settlement with Hobby Lobby, in which Hobby Lobby consented to the forfeiture of the artifacts in the complaint, approximately 144 cylinder seals and an additional sum of $3 million, resolving the civil action. Hobby Lobby further agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.

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Two eel indictments in Broken Glass investigation

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American eel

Two Maine men have been charged in an ongoing eel trafficking investigation. (March 30, 2017)

William Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich, Maine, and Timothy Lewis, 46, of Phippsburg, Maine, were each indicted in Portland, Maine, with crimes related to illegally trafficking juvenile American eels, also known as “elvers” or “glass eels.” A seven-count indictment was returned on March 1, charging Sheldon with conspiracy to smuggle elvers and violate the Lacey Act. A two-count indictment was returned on March 29, charging Lewis with conspiracy to traffic elvers and violate the Lacey Act. Sheldon was arraigned today in U.S. District Court in Portland.

These indictments were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels. To date, the investigation has resulted in these two indictments, as well as guilty pleas for eleven individuals in Maine, Virginia and South Carolina. These eleven defendants combined have admitted to illegally trafficking more than $2.75 million worth of elvers.

Eels are highly valued in east Asia for human consumption. Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand; however, overfishing has led to a decline in the population of these eels. As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void resulting from the decreased number of Japanese and European eels.

American eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic Ocean bounded on all sides by ocean currents. They then travel as larvae from the Sargasso to the coastal waters of the eastern U.S., where they enter a juvenile or elver stage, swim upriver and grow to adulthood in fresh water. Elvers are exported for aquaculture in east Asia, where they are raised to adult size and sold for food. Harvesters and exporters of American eels in the U.S. can sell elvers to east Asia for more than $2000 per pound.

Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the U.S. in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina. Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities.

Conviction in Pakistani smuggling case

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A New Mexico man was convicted Thursday by a federal jury for multiple crimes, including his role in a conspiracy to smuggle ancient artifacts into the United States from Pakistan. This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with assistance provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the National Geographic Association.

According to evidence presented at trial and court records, Ijaz Khan, 42, of Sante Fe, New Mexico, was part of a conspiracy that smuggled ancient artifacts into the U.S., including pottery and bronze weapons stolen from burial sites and coins from a cave temple in Pakistan called the Kashmir Smast. Khan and Vera Lautt, 57, also of Santa Fe, used their business, Indus Valley, to sell the artifacts. One shipment of artifacts was stopped at Dulles International Airport in October 2013. Khan and others then attempted to obtain the shipment by submitting various false and fraudulent documents to CBP.

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U.S. seeks looted Syrian artifacts

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Gold ring with carved gemstone. This ring is believed to be from the Hellenistic/Roman period, dating approximately from 330 BC to 400 AD, and to have come from Deir Ezzor, Syria, which is near where the raid against Abu Sayyaf occurred. Finger not included. Photo courtesy of Abu Sayyaf’s raided archives.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was on the lookout for four artifacts it believes were looted from for Syria and sold to benefit war chests belonging to ISIS (also known as ISIL and De’esh).

The forfeiture complaint spells out how authorities traced the items thanks to the records of Abu Sayyaf, the late ISIS antiquities minister who was in charge of taxing and permitting looters who were taking advantage of chaos in the war-torn country to dig up ancient artifacts for profit.

The complaint goes on to describe how one of Sayyaf’s underlings even kidnapped the 16-year-old son of one of the antiquities merchants at gunpoint. This came following a dispute over tariffs on relics and gold that had been dug out of the ground with pick axes. In the end, Sayyaf was ordered to apologize to the boy’s family, and the underling was directed to go to shari’al law and military course.

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Return of the mummy’s hand

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Photo courtesy Josh Denmark/Immigration and Customs Enforcement

An Egyptian mummy hand is on its way home after customs officials formally handed over the appendage — and four other artifacts — to Egyptian authorities Thursday.

The 8th century BCE hand had been smuggled into the United States, and customs agents found it labeled as a prop for a sci-fi movies during an investigation. It was the latest repatriation in the Operation Mummy’s Hand and Operation Mummy’s Curse probes, which include the case of the nesting sarcophagus found in a Brooklyn garage in 2009. 

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement:

The ongoing investigation has identified a criminal network of smugglers, importers, money launderers, restorers and purchasers who used illegal methods to avoid detection as these items entered the United States. Items and funds were traced back to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Iraq, France, and other nations.

To date, Operation Mummy’s Curse has secured four indictments, two convictions, 19 search warrants, and 16 seizures totalling approximately $3 million. The agency is also seeking an international fugitive involved in the case.

Probation in skull smuggling case

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  A Texas man has been sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to smuggling two endangered orangutan skulls from Indonesia into the country.

Graham Scott Criglow, 39, of Anderson, was sentenced Sept. 7, 2016, in a U.S. District Court for Southern Texas in connection with an intercepted package that contained pongo orangutan skulls and a search of his home that yielded human skulls, according to the Department of Justice.

Orangutans are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Criglow is a reptile breeder and owner of Strange Cargo Exotics, an Internet-based wildlife business that dabbles in the trade of poisonous snakes.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice: 

In April 2016, FWS inspectors at the San Francisco International Airport examined a parcel from Indonesia addressed to Criglow. The parcel lacked an Indonesian customs declaration and was screened using an x-ray machine. The inspectors determined the parcel contained two primate skulls. A morphology examination determined the wildlife was two orangutan skulls. 

In May 2016, agents conducted a controlled delivery of the skulls at Criglow’s residence and executed a search warrant, at which time agents located several other animal skulls and bones. Authorities also located human remains including approximately 30 human skulls which were found to be legally purchased by Criglow for his personal collection.

Charges in pool cue smuggling case

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 A California pool cue maker has been charged in a smuggling case involving sticks with ivory inlays. Below is the release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

North Hollywood Pool Cue Maker Charged with Helping Smuggle Elephant Ivory

July 28, 2016

LOS ANGELES – A North Hollywood man surrendered to U.S. Marshals this morning after an arrest warrant was issued on federal charges of aiding and abetting the illegal smuggling of protected elephant ivory.

Cesar Ernesto Gutierrez, 75, was charged in a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court with aiding and abetting the attempted illegal exportation from the United States to Taiwan of protected African elephant ivory.

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Marriage and smuggling charges

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  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a Pakistani native began smuggling artifacts into the United States after using a sham marriage to gain citizenship. 
The artifacts included ancient coins, bronze and iron axes, spears, arrowheads, swords and daggers and were sold at shows and online through his company, Indus Valley. When a shipment of some 1,300 artifacts got flagged by customs agents at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2013, he and others claimed the objects were inherited family property valued at $500.

Here are the details:

Indictments for citizenship fraud, artifact smuggling 

5.27.16

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Several individuals were indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday for citizenship fraud and smuggling cultural artifacts into the United States. This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Department of State’s (DOS) Office of Inspector General.

Three individuals – Ijaz Khan, 42, and Vera Lautt, 56, both of Sante Fe, New Mexico, and Ibrar Khan, of Pakistan – face charges for conspiracy to defraud the United States and naturalizing and procuring U.S. citizenship by fraud. Ijaz Khan, along with Fahad Khan, of Pakistan, face additional charges, including smuggling artifacts from Pakistan into the United States and obstructing justice.

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Garlic tusk smuggling scheme

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Clockwise from top left. “What’s all this, then?”; Enough garlic to keep an Italian restaurant stocked for a decade; Gratuitous raid jacket shot using fisheye lens; Wild free-range garlic. Photo collage by Interpol

It’s difficult to pass off elephant tusks as garlic. Especially when you have 700 tusks. This is probably why more people don’t try it. More on how the scheme failed, according to Interpol, below:

Networks behind ivory and rhino horn trafficking targeted in East Africa

May 4, 2016

One man has been arrested and warrants issued for three others in connection with ongoing investigations into two organized crime networks believed to have trafficked at least 8,635 kg of ivory and 53 kg of rhino horn from East and Southern Africa to Asia.

A 44-year-old Chinese national was arrested in Tanzania on suspicion of trafficking in government trophies following the deployment of INTERPOL Investigative Support Teams to Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

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Couple sentenced for seal oil smuggling

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Harp seal

 A California couple has been sentenced for trying to smuggle mislabeled bee-based products and protected harp seal oil into the United States through their health products company.

According to claims on eBay listings (where I get most of my health advice), harp seal oil has omega 3 fatty acids vital to heart and circulatory health and it has advantages over fish oil-derived omega 3. The ads, usually originating from Canadian outfits, skim over the protected status parts.

Here’s the U.S. Department of Justice release on the case:

Health Products Company and Owners Sentenced for Smuggling Seal Oil and Dietary Supplements 

April 26, 2016

LOS ANGELES – A couple from Walnut, California and two of their import and distribution companies have been sentenced after previously pleading guilty to a wide variety of criminal activity, including smuggling Harp Seal oil into the United States from China, falsely classifying goods to avoid import duties, and importing mislabeled food into the United States from China.

 Lynn Leung, 61, the former president and co-owner of the UBF Group, Inc., doing business as the Nu-Health Products Company, was ordered yesterday to serve five years of probation, which will include one year of home detention. Leung was also ordered by United States District Judge Dale S. Fischer to pay a $20,000 fine. Additionally, Leung was banned from working as a manager, officer or director of any business entity – including her own family companies – for a period of five years.

 Daniel Fu, 65, Leung’s husband and the former vice-president of UBF Group, Inc., was also sentenced Monday to five years of probation, ordered to spend six months under home detention and fined $20,000. During the period of probation, Fu is also banned from working as a manager, officer or director of any business entity – including his own family companies

  Leung and Fu jointly owned and operated a number of local dietary supplement import and distribution companies doing business as the Nu-Health Products Company, including UBF Group, Inc. and ASN Group, Inc.  More

Greek pottery seized in smuggling investigation

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Pottery in similar style as the seized piece, not a photo of the actual piece.

 Files of a convicted art smuggler in Italy led American investigators to an Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora (old timey Greek vase with reddish figures on black background) that was in a New York gallery. Here’s the ICE release on the case.

ICE seizes artifact linked to Italian art smuggler

April 13, 2016

NEW YORK – Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations on Wednesday seized an ancient Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora by Charmides Painter (475- 460 B.C.). 

This seizure follows a joint international investigation led by HSI New York, and the Italian Cabanieri. The Italians traced the Nolan Amphora to a gallery in New York City. It is believed that the Nolan Amphora might have been in the United States illegally since as early as 1997. HSI agents tracked down and recovered the item within hours after Italian authorities provided details of the artifact. More

Man convicted of smuggling songbirds

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 LOS ANGELES – A Los Angeles federal jury has convicted a Garden Grove man of smuggling Asian songbirds into the United States concealed in his suitcase at Los Angeles International Airport, according to the Department of Justice.

Can Thanh Nguyen, 63, was found guilty Thursday of importing and bringing Asian songbirds into the United States in violation of federal law. Nguyen, who had a long history of international travel, landed at LAX April 20 of last year. At a U.S. Customs and Border Protection kiosk, Nguyen stated he was not carrying any animals or animal/wildlife products. However, he was subsequently referred by a CBP officer to a secondary agricultural inspection point. 

 While Nguyen was in that inspection area, CBP personnel discovered 27 Asian songbirds that had been carefully concealed in his suitcase. The birds were hidden in cages wrapped in foil or newspaper underneath a layer of foil and clothing to avoid detection. Special agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations responded to investigate.

Eleven of the Asian songbirds birds found in Nguyen’s suitcase were identified as Chinese Hwamei, Garrulax canorus, a type of Asian songbird which is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Two of the birds found in the suitcase were already dead, and several others died shortly after.

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