Detroit

— Lucky for Kai Xu, the 51 reptiles he allegedly strapped to his groin and legs during a failed border crossing weren't snapping turtles.

The 26-year-old Windsor man appeared in federal court Thursday on charges that he attempted to smuggle dozens of turtles across the Detroit-Windsor border into Canada — an alleged attempt foiled when security officers found the reptiles hidden in his sweatpants, according to a federal court filing.

The incident was one in a series of alleged smuggling attempts involving Xu and foiled by federal investigators. Early Wednesday, Xu and a second Canadian man, Lihua Lin, 30, were arrested after Lin tried to fly to Shanghai, China, with more than 200 turtles hidden in his luggage. While Chinese names generally are last name first, first name last, the two were named Xu and Lin, repeatedly, in court documents.

The arrests illustrate the demand internationally — particularly in Asia — for turtles as food or pets, local experts said. One species of turtle found in Xu's pants sells for as much as $800 each.

"You see some extreme cases in which people try to smuggle things. Although this sounds really extreme, we see cases like this across the nation," U.S. Customs and Border Protection Melissa Maraj said. "People use a lot of ingenuity and creativity. Unfortunately, it's a sign of desperation."

The reptiles included several North American species, including Eastern box turtles, diamondback Terrapins, endangered spotted turtles and red-eared sliders — one of the world's most invasive species.

The Eastern turtles are worth as much as $800 in the international pet trade, Chelsea herpetologist David Mifsud said.

"It should shock me but, sadly, it doesn't," Mifsud said.

Xu is an engineering student at the University of Waterloo and a Canadian citizen, originally from China. He was charged with smuggling, illegal trading and exporting. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

Xu's lawyer, Tim Debolski, told The Detroit News he wanted time to review the evidence after being hired Thursday.

"Everything will come out in due time," he said.

Xu, wearing an orange jail uniform, handcuffs and ankle shackles, is being held without bond and is due in federal court at 1 p.m. today. That's when a magistrate judge will determine whether to release the man on bond.

On Thursday, Xu sat next to Lin during a brief court appearance.

Lin was arrested Wednesday at Detroit Metropolitan Airport before he could board a flight to Shanghai, according to court records.

He was released on $10,000 unsecured bond Thursday. His lawyer declined comment.

A day earlier, on Tuesday, agents watched Xu pick up several boxes of live turtles from a FedEx office in Novi, according to a criminal complaint.

Xu drove to a Romulus hotel where he met with Lin. On Wednesday morning, the men left the hotel and Xu dropped Lin off at the airport, prosecutors allege.

Lin, who lives near Toronto, checked two pieces of luggage, went through security and waited to board the plane, according to court records.

Agents, meanwhile, inspected his luggage and found more than 200 North American pond turtles, according to a criminal complaint. Some of the reptiles are spotted turtles.

"Lin was stopped at the gate during boarding and asked if he was declaring any goods," Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Matthew Martin wrote in the complaint. "Lin said no."

Meanwhile, the failed border crossing happened Aug. 5. That's when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Mona Iannelli got a tip that a special package had arrived at a Detroit postal center.

The tipster said the large brown box weighed seven pounds and bore the words "live fish keep cool."

The box was shipped from Alabama and addressed to Xu, according to the criminal complaint.

Soon after, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told Iannelli that Xu had just crossed the border in a Ford Escape.

Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Kenneth Adams and two fellow agents set up surveillance outside the postal center on Hoover Street south of Eight Mile in northeast Detroit.

In the afternoon, Xu pulled up in his tan Escape with Ontario plates.

He "exited the vehicle, looked around the parking lot, and then entered" the post office, Adams wrote.

Xu walked outside minutes later, carrying a cardboard box with red lettering and stashed it in the back of the Escape, according to the complaint.

Agents, who were watching nearby, saw Xu transfer something from the box into clear plastic baggies, Adams wrote.

Xu got out of the sport utility vehicle and crossed the parking lot while carrying a grocery bag containing a roll of tape and baggies, and scissors, the agent wrote.

He disappeared for about 10 minutes after walking between two U.S. Postal Service tractor trailers.

When Xu emerged from between the trailers, he was carrying the scissors, but not the bag.

He walked back to the Escape and wiped his hands with a paper towel, which he tossed to the ground, the agent wrote.

Then, he looked around the parking lot.

That's when another agent "noticed irregularly shaped bulges under Xu's sweatpants on both his legs," Adams wrote.

Xu got back into his sport utility vehicle and headed for the border. Agents trailed him in another car until he arrived at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

Border guards stopped his car in Canada for secondary inspection.

"During the secondary inspection, Xu was found to have 51 live turtles taped to his person. Specifically, Xu had 41 turtles taped to his legs and 10 hidden between his legs," Adams wrote.

It was unclear whether Xu was arrested following the inspection. The turtles, meanwhile, were seized and turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service agents.

"They are receiving adequate care. Once the case is closed, the turtles are placed permanently," Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Tina Shaw said in an email.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2028

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