Florida wildlife authorities uncover statewide illegal trafficking, hunting network

Suspects illegally hunted gopher tortoise, deer, snook and redfish

OCALA, Fla. – A two-year statewide investigation by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission undercover officers has led to charges and arrests of more than a dozen people with more charges to come, the wildlife authority officials said Friday.

Maj. Grant Burton, head of the FWC's Investigations Section, said in May 2017 a tip led officers to one of the suspects, James Alexander Smith, in Levy County.

Officers went undercover in Levy County and were able to uncover an illegal fishing and hunting network connected across the state from Levy to Broward and Pinellas counties.

The suspects were hunting deer out of season, alligators without permits and gopher tortoise, which are a protected species. FWC officers also learned that the suspects were fishing snook and redfish that were part of an effort to replenish Florida's waterways after the algae bloom and red tide.

The Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, Duke Energy and the FWC, have released over 34,000 juvenile and adult redfish this year into areas hardest hit by red tide.

"These individuals were using it for their financial gain," CCA chairman Jeff Miller said of the replenishment efforts.

Thousands of pounds of fish and wildlife were sold on the black market, according to Burton, including to some restaurants. The investigation is ongoing, including into some of those businesses.

Three suspects -- Smith, Sherod Chistopher Strawder and Aeronnett Jermeshal Shytresa Lee -- were arrested Friday and charged with unlawful wildlife sales, possession of fish and wildlife during a closed season and other related charges.

Fifteen other suspects were issued notice to appear citations on Friday. Burton said additional charges are poending and FWC is still investigating more than 10 other people.

"Organized criminal operations like this pose serious environmental and economic consequences,” said Col. Curtis Brown, head of FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement. “They damage our precious natural resources and create black markets that undermine the legal process. We do our best to put a stop to these crimes, supporting law-abiding business owners, landowners and those who enjoy recreating in Florida.”

Burton said the illegal wildlife trafficking nets $19 billion a year across the U.S. but people can help by reporting suspected violations by calling or texting the Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or by emailing to Tip@MyFWC.com.