Fear the Turtle: A federal raid in Maryland shows how common snapping turtles can have an uncommon bite

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, March 18, 2009

Tread carefully when messing with turtles. (Photo credit: Van Smith)

Matt and Mike look to be in their 20s. They are keeping warm from the mid-January cold in Turtle Deluxe, Inc.’s stark office trailer, nestled between its loading dock and warehouse in Millington, a small town near the headwaters of the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. An electric heater hums, casting an orange glow on the room’s many bare surfaces, as Matt sits behind the expanse of a clean metal desk and Mike stands, the shelving behind him also empty. They say their boss, Turtle Deluxe owner Mike Johnson, is out of town on vacation.

Yes, Matt and Mike confirm, Turtle Deluxe processes common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and sells the meat for people to cook and eat, but not at this time of year, and usually not for over-the-counter sales. Turtle Deluxe products typically end up shipped through other suppliers to restaurants in Philadelphia and Louisiana, they contend, and no, they don’t know of any Maryland restaurants that serve its turtle meat.

“Kind of unusual,” Matt says of the stuff, “but it sells.”

Maybe in the spring Turtle Deluxe will have some turtle meat, Mike and Matt say. Then again, maybe not.

“It’s hard to say,” a bemused Mike observes as he takes a business card. “Call again in a few months and see.”

For a company called Turtle Deluxe, which sells turtle meat, it seems curious that the forecast would be so uncertain. But the reason is found in U.S. District Court filings in Baltimore: Turtle Deluxe is under federal criminal investigation.

The company’s owner, whose full name is Michael Vincent Johnson, is suspected of buying poached out-of-state snapping turtles from New York trappers, and the feds are trying to make a criminal case out of it. Agents entered Turtle Deluxe’s doors on Jan. 15, armed with a warrant describing why, and carted off voluminous business records.

Johnson has not been charged as a result of the raid. A reporter’s second visit to Turtle Deluxe on Jan. 29, though, made clear that he is under a lot of pressure. Johnson is something of a politician, having lost the Democratic primary in the 2006 Kent County Commissioners race, despite winning more than 1,000 votes–16 percent of the total–in a five-way race, so there must be moments when he is charming. This isn’t one of them.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Johnson commands a reporter. He emerges from behind a storage trailer next to the parking lot, molten anger pulsing through his spry, compact frame. For a split second, there’s hope that the gentle politician hiding under Johnson’s gruff exterior will emerge. A second plea to discuss Turtle Deluxe softens him enough to say, “Have a nice day,” but then another round of venom quickly spits out from behind his graying goatee. “Get the fuck out of here!” he repeats.

There’s no need to risk a third invitation to scram, though the prospect of Johnson resorting to violence seems remote. He looks to be in enough trouble already.

 Mike Johnson’s troubles started when a fellow named Kenneth Howard, who lives near the Alabama swamps in western New York, talked too much. They got worse when Mike Johnson did, too.

Believe it or not, there are laws against what Howard and Johnson are alleged to have done. Common snapping turtles have survived some 200 million years, but, common as they are, New York and other states have moved to protect them. Though Howard and Johnson have not been charged with a crime, the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant contends they knew what they were doing was illegal.

Here’s the law, in a nutshell: The New York State Assembly in 2006 clamped down on trapping live common snapping turtles. While it is OK, for personal use and consumption, to take up to five turtles a day and no more than 30 per 10-week season from July to September, it is not OK to trap them; instead, they must be shot dead with a gun or a bow and arrow. That means live snappers trapped in New York are contraband, and if they are transported across state lines, the federal Lacey Act–which prohibits interstate transport of contraband items–can come into play.

Authorities in New York wasted no time getting down to enforcement of the new law. In January 2007, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) investigator Daniel Sullivan “initiated contact with Howard in his covert capacity,” according to the Turtle Deluxe raid warrant, “portraying himself as a trapper of turtles looking for a buyer.” Howard, being helpful, told Sullivan all he knew on the subject.

Howard “transports about two hundred turtles to the ‘turtle factory’ located in Millington, Maryland three or four times per year,” the warrant explains. He “knows several other guys in New York who trap Common Snapping Turtles and he drives their turtles down to Maryland with his own. He keeps half of the money paid for the turtles he transports for the others.” As for the legality of this activity, the warrant continues, Howard “stated that he knew there was a season for Common Snapping Turtles in New York State and that all turtles were protected.”

Sullivan was off and running. He hit the internet, found that Turtle Deluxe “offered to buy turtles from the general public,” and on Jan. 30, 2007, called and left a message there, saying “he was from Western New York and had turtles he wished to sell.” Three days later, Mike Johnson called back and told Sullivan “he would buy every turtle he could get his hands on.”

According to the warrant, Johnson went on to say that “he has two suppliers in New York State” and “the turtles he bought were mainly processed for their meat and sold to domestic and foreign buyers. Some were sold live to foreign buyers. He stated that prices fluctuated, but he usually paid between $1.00 and $1.50 per pound.” Johnson said he “buys from so many states that he couldn’t keep track of the laws,” so “he buys turtles based on what was legal where he lived (Maryland).”

Sullivan arranged a shipment, and on Oct. 2, 2007, he drove from New York to Millington with 835 pounds of live snappers and 20 painted turtles to be sold to Johnson, who met him when he arrived. While the turtles were being unloaded, Sullivan flat-out told Johnson what they were doing was illegal. “The season never opened in New York this year,” the warrant has Sullivan saying, adding that “it was illegal to trap live turtles” there now.

Johnson’s response isn’t memorialized in the warrant, but the details of the transaction are. He gave Sullivan a receipt for the turtles and a check for $1,212.20 and told him “to go to the Peoples Bank down the street, where he could cash the check and leave no paper trail.”

 The following summer,on June 24, 2008, Sullivan called Johnson about bringing down another load of New York snappers. This time, Johnson was wary. He didn’t want any illegal turtles brought down, he said, but he “needed his turtles live and preferred them caught in traps,” according to the warrant.

Johnson admitted knowing that the New York laws had changed. He told Sullivan that, now that he knew that Sullivan knew the turtles were illegal, how was Johnson supposed to know Sullivan “did not work for the Federal Government?” There was “no way he would buy” Sullivan’s turtles now, and Sullivan “should not have made the mistake of telling him that the turtles were illegal” because now he “could not buy them.” Johnson said “it would be insane for him to knowingly violate the Lacey Act.”

Enter Randy Cottrell, special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, based in Amherst, N.Y.

Cottrell’s investigations typically make use of the Lacey Act, but they tend to involve creatures more exotic than snappers. In one, for instance, a couple was nabbed for bringing endangered African leopards to New York from an Ohio seller. But Cottrell has busted people for reptilian trafficking, too, such as a guy bringing two endangered species–a spotted turtle and two eastern massasauga rattlesnakes–to New York from Canada.

But the ubiquitous common snapping turtle? Well, why not, now that it’s contraband?

According to the warrant, Cottrell had been involved in Sullivan’s Turtle Deluxe investigation from the beginning, working with Sullivan and others from the DEC. Now, though, he’d do the field work like Sullivan did, going undercover as a trapper trying to sell New York common snappers.

Cottrell set up a shipment to Turtle Deluxe, and arrived in Millington on Oct. 20, 2008, with 80 live turtles. Cottrell helped Johnson and another employee unload them to be sorted and weighed. Johnson gave Cottrell a check for $1,045.50 and told him to go cash it at the Peoples Bank down the road, just like he’d told Sullivan a year earlier.

Having invested nearly two years, Cottrell and Sullivan were now ready to take it to the next level–executing a search and seizure warrant. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge James Bredar signed it in Baltimore on Jan. 14, and the next day, Cottrell and his crew went down to Millington and began taking away Turtle Deluxe documents. In all, they seized 22 items, including nine boxes of records, notebooks, an address book, a phone list, checkbooks and stubs, receipts, business cards, and the contents of a laptop computer.

No one from the various agencies involved in the ongoing investigation would comment about the raid, the warrant, or anything about the case. Neither would Matt Esworthy of Baltimore, the lawyer Johnson recently retained to represent him as the investigation continues. Attempts to reach Kenneth Howard were not successful, though court records in New York indicate he went bankrupt last year after his self-employment income suddenly crashed.

 There’s an old saying: “Behold the turtle, he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That’s also when the butcher cuts off the turtle’s head, so the saying is flawed. But it still makes a good point: The turtle’s progress can also be its undoing.

The same may be said of Johnson and Howard. Their livelihoods stood to gain as they stuck their necks out to get turtle meat to market, and now it remains to be seen whether the axe will fall–and whether they’ll still be able to make turtle-meat money at all.

The Turtle Deluxe raid is part of a global phenomenon, affirms James Gibbs, after he is given the details by City Paper. The State University of New York biology professor is an international expert on turtles of all kinds, but has a keen interest in common snapping turtles in New York–which he says are abundant now, but due to growing global demand for turtle meat, could see their numbers plummet quickly.

“The global market is expanding,” Gibbs explains, “and now it is beginning to affect us, because one can make a pretty good living today in the United States selling live snapping turtles to the Asian market. States that have banned trapping, like Maine and New York, are trying to get a jump on something that could really decimate our stock. In Asia over the last two or three years, they have depleted their own turtle populations and have been looking elsewhere around the world to meet the demand, so prices have been rising. These are forces that are beyond our control here, so shutting down commercial trapping is a pre-meditated attempt to forestall the plummeting of our own stock’s numbers.”

Gibbs is no stranger to turtle meat himself, and doesn’t oppose the capturing, butchering, and eating of turtles. Its appeal in the United States is largely limited to cultural outposts in the South and Midwest, he says, where old-timers still like to run their traps. It’s back-breaking work, bringing big snappers home for butchering, Gibbs observes, but “it’s pretty good meat, once you get past the leeches and the algae and whatnot that grow on them.” Careful about the PCBs, though, because the meat of turtles from some contaminated areas have “levels off the charts,” he adds.

There are still big cities where restaurants serve turtle dishes–the best known, perhaps, being New Orleans, where Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s both have turtle soup on their menus, and Philadelphia, where Bookbinder’s has its “famous snapper soup.” Baltimore’s Maryland Club, a private social club, is renowned for terrapin stew, but that’s a different kind of turtle–and a whole other City Paper story (“Shell Game,” Eats and Drinks, Sept. 17, 1997).

Restaurants’ needs, along with those of swamp chefs and other turtle-eating enthusiasts, don’t add up to much pressure on snapping turtle populations currently, Gibbs goes on. But if demand climbs–as has been happening with the growing Asian market for U.S. snappers–the results could be devastating.

Gibbs says snappers, like many turtles, don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 years, and can live another 30 past that. Each year, 95 percent or more of those adults must survive for the population to stay at viable levels, otherwise it will plummet because of very high juvenile mortality. The youngsters’ long odds of reaching adulthood have gotten longer with the proliferation of mid-sized predators, like raccoons and foxes, brought on by the declining numbers of their own predators.

The New York population of common snapping turtles is “huge” right now, Gibbs says, “but they are not reproducing well at all, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.” Turtles, he explains, need loose soils in sunny areas to have successful hatches, and the reforestation of New England over the last several decades has shaded much good turtle-nesting habitat. Thus, large-scale trapping of live adults–including egg-bearing females–could add up to a very real threat to survival.

If Johnson and Howard were up to what Cottrell and Sullivan are out to prove, and were good for say, 600 to 800 adult New York snappers being trapped for butchering at Turtle Deluxe each year, then, according to Gibbs, they probably haven’t done much damage to the snappers’ overall well-being. Even if there are only six or eight trappers operating at that level in New York, Gibbs continues, it still wouldn’t be a problem. But “if there are 200 or 300 trappers–and there may be that many, I just don’t know–there’s a problem,” though he adds that “it’s not likely to have gotten to that level or someone would have noticed.”

Harlon Pearce,proprietor of the Louisiana seafood processor and supplier Harlon’s LA Fish, knows Mike Johnson and Turtle Deluxe. “There aren’t too many turtle processing plants around–there’s him, and then there’s some in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa that I’m aware of,” Pearce explains. “There’s only a smattering of people around the country doing it, and he’s a pretty large processor. He does do a lot of turtles. And based on his pricing, he’s for sure shipping a lot of those turtles overseas.”

Pearce, who’s a member of the Louisiana state government’s Seafood Standards of Identity Task Force and the advisory board of the Louisiana State University Department of Food Science, has a pretty good grasp of the global turtle picture, too. “The Asian market,” he says, “has helped the [common snapping turtle] industry get a lot stronger very quickly over the last couple of years.” He’s no fan of Johnson and Turtle Deluxe, though. In 2004, he sued them in Kent County court over money he’d given Johnson in advance for turtles that Pearce says he never got. He lost–“that kangaroo court they got down there backed him, if you can believe it,” he says–and moved on. Now he’s intrigued by the news that Johnson may have Lacey Act problems.

“If Turtle Deluxe is taken down by the Lacey Act,” Pearce predicts, “it will affect the U.S. supply of snapping turtles, and it’ll make more demand in Asia because there will be less turtles to satisfy that market.” Snappers are common–“there certainly is not a problem of overfishing,” he contends–but the meat “is not an easy commodity to handle because the laws are just varied in states across the country.” The loss of one processing plant like Turtle Deluxe, he says, can make a big difference until new avenues for bringing the turtles to market open up lawfully.

Pearce is of the opinion that states like New York and Maine, which have shut down commercial snapper trapping, are engaging in “a lot of knee-jerk reactions based on environmentalists saying we are decimating our resources. I’m not privy to the science of those states, but, no, you don’t have a problem with turtle numbers. There are plenty out there, and these laws are just overreactions. Plus, there are a lot of farm turtles, too.”

Nonetheless, “you got to obey the law, or try and change it,” Pearce continues, “or you’re an idiot and you deserve what you get.”

But it’s still sad, he adds, that people lose their livelihoods over the passage of such laws. “Like that old turtle trapper out there,” he says. “It’s been legal his whole life, and then suddenly it isn’t and he’s supposedly some kind of criminal. I don’t think we should take away jobs like that.”

Tom Frisch of Ohio, a 79-year-old retired snapping turtle trapper, got out of commercial trapping in the 1980s. “Now I just do it for my own, or when someone calls wanting to get a turtle out of their pond. And I’m the Johnny Appleseed of snapping turtles,” he adds, because he also raises them for release in the wild. And though he still processes turtles for people on occasion, “I won’t butcher females anymore. It’s just not good practice.”

Frisch has a sense that, despite the ever-restrictive regulatory environment surrounding commercial snapping-turtle trappers, some have been able not only to keep working, but to make a good living at it. He says he knows a snapper trapper still in business, though he won’t give his name, who’s been going gangbusters compared to what Frisch used to do in his day.

“In Ohio, back when I was doing it, you could trap for a month, maybe take a ton of turtles,” Frisch recalls. “But this guy goes to New York State, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, and after four days there he comes back with a ton of turtles in his truck, and that’s maybe 200 turtles. New York has really been a good trapping area for the last few years. And then he goes up to Maine, and comes back with the biggest turtles you’ve ever seen. He does a lot of traveling, going down into Kentucky, too. But he does not trap anymore until after the turtles have laid their eggs. In other words, he’s a conservationist, too.”

Gibbs, the biology professor in New York, hears about Frisch’s story of the prolific trapper and remains nonplussed. “You’re talking about some guy from out of state with a big truck that he fills up, then trundles on down to some factory somewhere,” he says. “That’s not trivial, dealing in actual tons of turtles and doing it illegally, and if you had a lot of people doing this, it would be a terrible problem. That’s why the enforcement end of the new no-trapping rules is so important, to keep that from happening.”

Ron Fithian is one of Kent County’s three commissioners who beat out Mike Johnson in the 1996 election, and he heard about the Turtle Deluxe raid shortly after it happened. “All we ever heard,” he recalls, “is that a bunch of law enforcement officers showed up at his place, but we never heard anything more about it, so we figured nothing came of it.”

Fithian has been in the seafood business on the Eastern Shore for 27 years, he says, and he’s also the town manager of Rock Hall. He used to sell rockfish to Johnson, “but then he sort of got out of it,” Fithian recalls, “and the next thing I knew, he was in the turtle business in Millington. And there are not that many people that are in the turtle business around here, because there was never much money in it. You’d get maybe a quarter, thirty-five cents a pound, and that was the price forever, no fluctuations for years. Just not worth the effort, at that price.”

But all that changed, Fithian said, when Johnson “discovered a market overseas, and I heard he started paying upward of $1.50 per pound for live snapping turtles. That was just unheard of.”

Now that Fithian knows Johnson is caught up in a Lacey Act turtle investigation out of New York, all he has to say is, “I always have looked upon him as a law-abiding citizen. He’s been somewhat of an activist at times in the community, and he always wants you to think he’s Mr. Environmentalist. I do know him, and I know him well. But there isn’t much I can say, other than this isn’t the type of thing he’s wanting to be known as.”

And perhaps Johnson won’t be known that way, depending on how the Turtle Deluxe investigation wraps up.

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