Christopher Hayes, the President and owner of a Florida auction house was sentenced today in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, to 36 months in prison followed by two years of supervised release for his role in the illegal wildlife smuggling conspiracy in which he bought, sold and smuggled rhinoceros horns and objects made from rhino horn, elephant ivory and coral that were smuggled from the United States to China. Hayes’ corporation, Elite Estate Buyers Inc., located in Boynton Beach, Florida, was ordered to pay a $1.5 million criminal fine to the Lacey Act reward fund. The court also banned the corporation from trading wildlife during a five year term of probation.
The sentences were announced today by Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer for the Southern District of Florida and Director Dan Ashe for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
“Those involved in the auction business have a special responsibility to make sure that their business does not further the illegal trade in wildlife,” said Assistant Attorney General Cruden. “Each illegally-traded horn or tusk represents not an antique object but a dead animal. Wildlife trafficking entails poaching, bribery, smuggling and organized crime.”
“Illegal wildlife trade threatens the survival of many endangered species,” said U.S. Attorney Ferrer. “The Department of Justice has made it a priority to protect our natural resources. Our enforcement efforts are in place to stop illegal trade practices that endanger the conservation of nature.”
“This case highlights the part seemingly legitimate auction houses and other businesses can play in the illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products – as well as the direct connection U.S. businesses and citizens have to this international crisis,” said Director Ashe. “This conviction of Elite Estate Buyers – the first of such a company and its president – demonstrates our resolve in going after all those involved in the illegal wildlife trade and should serve as a warning to similar operations, both here in the United States and abroad, that they are on our radar screen and will be brought to justice for their role in the destruction of these animals.”
According to a factual statement filed in court at the time of their guilty plea, Hayes and Elite admitted to being part of a 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. Charges were brought after Hayes purchased endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
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 Ning Qiu, a Texas resident involved in smuggling the horns to China. Qiu has pleaded guilty to being part of a broader conspiracy to smuggle rhinoceros horns and items made from rhinoceros horns to Zhifei Li, the owner or an antique business in China and the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that smuggled 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million from the United States to China. Qiu was sentenced to serve 25 months in prison on May 14, 2015, in Frisco, Texas, and Li was sentenced in June 2014 to a prison term of 70 months in New Jersey.
Elite and Hayes also admitted to selling items made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral to the President of an antiques business in Canada, who they then directed to a local shipper that agreed to mail the items in Canada without required permits. That individual, Xiao Ju Guan, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on March 25, 2015 in New York.
The prosecution of Elite and Hayes is part of Operation Crash, a continuing effort by the Special Investigations Unit for the FWS’ 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 and elephant ivory.
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 U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section. The prosecution of Hayes and Elite was conducted 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.