Prosecutions continue to grow for illegal marine-life sales stemming from 2011 Grassy Key raid

kwadlow@keynoter.comApril 5, 2014 

This is Key Marine on Grassy Key the afternoon of the 2011 federal raid. Agents had since left the property.

BY RYAN MCCARTHY

The number of defendants linked to Operation Rock Bottom, a federal investigation into smuggling of live fish and coral illegally taken from protected Florida Keys waters, continues to rise.

Two more cases against operators of saltwater-aquarium businesses were added to the roster recently, federal court records say.

"A number of these cases are still progressing through the courts," said Jeff Radonski, a South Florida special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law-enforcement office.

"You never know what will come out until it gets to the very end," Radonski said Wednesday. "But it has been a good case."

Four men are in federal prison as a result of Operation Rock Bottom, which came to light in February 2013 when officials of the Idaho Aquarium, a private nonprofit facility in Boise, were arrested on federal charges.

However, the investigation apparently began two years earlier when state and federal officers raided Key Marine Inc., a fish-collecting business on Grassy Key. Following the 2011 raid, law officers refused to say what was behind it.

Court records in later cases indicate that through 2011 and 2012, officers used Key Marine and its operators to compile evidence on other businesses seeking to buy or ship live sharks, rays and other tropical fish illegally taken from Keys waters.

In recent cases:

-- Jerrold Tieder, 47, president of Tropical Fish Transhippers in Davie, was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $5,000 in January.

Charged with the sale or purchase of illegally harvested wildlife, Tieder faced the possibility of five years in prison.

He pleaded guilty to acquiring and selling nurse sharks from a Keys supplier who lacked the required shark permits. Four nurse sharks purchased by Tieder and sold out of state in November 2012 had earlier been fitted by lawmen with concealed identification devices.

Tieder's business was placed on probation for three years and fined $2,500. A portion of the fine will go toward the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Tieder reportedly made less than $500 on the shark sale.

-- Jonathan Hale of Country Critters of Long lsland Inc., in Patchogue, N.Y., is scheduled for a June trial at the Key West federal courthouse on charges of buying and selling live rock and corals taken from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Hale is accused of knowingly dealing with a Middle Keys company that in September 2012 supplied the mushroom coral and other species, which had been falsely labeled as overseas imports. Hale is free on $25,000 bond.

-- Christopher Conk, 41, of Idaho was arrested Tuesday for violating his probation from an earlier case of dealing in illegal saltwater corals. He was being held in federal custody in South Florida at press time.

Conk was sentenced in December to four months in prison followed by two years of probation, including six months' house arrest. That sentence was imposed for his participation in the Idaho Aquarium case that involved the illegal purchase of eagle rays and lemon sharks, both protected species.

Conk already was on federal probation in 2012 when he was arrested for driving under the influence, and later for making illegal purchases for the Idaho Aquarium.

"I went ahead with the purchase of the sharks despite knowing about the lack of permits," Conk in a December letter seeking a reduced sentence. "I know this was wrong. I made a bad decision.... This has affected many people in Boise and I feel terrible."

It was not clear whether Conk was arrested after serving his four-month sentence.

Ammon Covino, Conk's co-defendant in the Idaho Aquarium case, in December was sentenced to a year in prison. Covino is scheduled for release in late August, according to online federal inmate records. He will remain on probation for two years.

-- Richard E. Perrin, 80, owner of the Tropicorium marine-life store in Michigan, was sentenced March 27 to three years of probation and fined $15,000 for catching, buying and shipping illegally taken nurse sharks, angelfish and other species from the Keys during a weeklong trip in 2011.

Perrin and co-defendant Joseph Franko also pleaded guilty to catching several baby alligators from wild areas along U.S. 41. Franko is scheduled for sentencing April 14 in Key West.

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