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Feds lift veil on international turtle smuggling ring

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Windsor man busted at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel with 51 live turtles in his pants is a serial smuggler who shipped thousands of reptiles to far-flung locales hidden in snow boots and cereal boxes, a federal prosecutor said Friday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward gave rare insight into a lucrative, international smuggling ring headed by Kai Xu that operated in at least three countries. She described an operation that peddled thousands of turtles, some endangered and worth $1,800 each, and relied on aliases and reptile couriers that Xu — aka "Turtle Man" — recruited through online forums and classified ads.

Woodward lifted the veil Friday on an unusual criminal case that drew headlines a day earlier as far away as the United Kingdom while successfully arguing that Xu should be denied bond while awaiting trial on charges that could send him to prison for 10 years.

Federal agents seized 970 live turtles during an arrest Wednesday at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The turtles allegedly were hidden in black rubber boots and boxes of corn flakes.

Xu, 26, is a liar who kept smuggling after being arrested in early August after crossing into Canada with 51 turtles taped to his legs and hidden in his crotch, Woodward said. The scope of his smuggling ring, black market riches and his Canadian residency demands that he be held in the U.S. until trial, she argued.

"He is a full-time reptile smuggler," Woodward told U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Scheer during a detention hearing in federal court. "All of the evidence points to Mr. Xu directing others and doing it for a very considerable time and for an extreme amount of profit."

The boyish-looking Xu, whose black bangs dangled over the tips of his glasses, sat quietly wearing an orange jailhouse jumper while Woodward spoke to the judge but started crying after his fiancee entered the courtroom. His leg chains and handcuffs made a tinkling sound as he tried to stifle tears.

Late Friday afternoon, Scheer ordered the alleged turtle smuggler held without bond.

He was poised to go home Friday until the prosecutor accused him of lying about enrolling as an engineering student at the University of Waterloo and continuing to smuggle turtles and tortoises despite an August arrest in Canada. There is no guarantee Xu would return to the U.S. to stand trial, Woodward argued.

Not true, defense lawyer Timothy Debolski responded. The case relies on liars caught up in the investigation who are seeking leniency, he said.

"My client wants to put this behind him and have his day in court," Debolski told the judge.

The prosecutor and a federal agent chronicled Xu's years-long involvement in the turtle smuggling trade that operated online. They also described the riches involved in mailing live turtles and tortoises to Asia, where certain species are facing extinction and coveted as pets or food.

Inside the black market, Xu was known as "Turtle Man," according to testimony.

An online reptile seller known as "Turtle Man" used several aliases but one poster in 2012 said the seller's real name was Xu Kai and operated in the Waterloo area.

"Turtle Man" received mixed reviews from buyers on the Canadian classified website Kijiji, according to posts on a second website,

Federal agents started investigating Xu in March after a confidential informant said the Windsor man was smuggling turtles.

Agents soon learned that Xu had entered the U.S. about 30 times since January to retrieve shipments of turtles from growers and mail reptiles from Metro Detroit and Buffalo, New York, to Hong Kong, Alaska and beyond.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Mona Iannelli detailed Xu's arrest earlier this week. It was the man's second arrest in as many months.

On Wednesday Xu and a Canadian man, alleged reptile courier Lihua Lin, 30, were arrested after Lin tried to fly to Shanghai, China, with 970 turtles hidden in his luggage.

While Chinese names generally are last name first, first name last, the two were referred to as Xu and Lin, repeatedly, in court Friday.

Xu hired Lin after posting a help wanted ad seeking someone to sell cosmetics for $4,000 a month. The real job involved smuggling turtles, Iannelli testified.

On Wednesday, Xu drove his alleged courier to Detroit Metropolitan Airport with two pieces of luggage. Agents inspected the bags and found almost 1,000 turtles — including 700 diamondback Terrapins and 16 kwangtung river turtles.

The dark brown kwangtung turtles with stripes on its neck are worth up to $1,800 each in the U.S. — and are three times as valuable in China, Iannelli said.

"Are they on the verge of extinction in Asia?" Woodward asked the agent.

"Yes," Iannelli said.

The reptile shipment, packed in rubber snow boots and boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, included wood turtles ($500 each), Blanding's turtles ($300), and albino red-eared sliders ($650), the agent said.

In all, the turtle shipment was worth more than $30,000 on the black market, the agent agreed.

Agents arrested Lin at the airport before he could board a plane to Shanghai. The Toronto-area man told agents Xu paid for the plane ticket, gave him a $500 down payment for smuggling the turtles and promised $2,000 upon return to the U.S., according to testimony.

The airport arrest came one month after Xu was busted after entering Canada through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. On Aug. 5, agents found 51 turtles taped to Xu's legs and hidden in his groin, according to a criminal complaint.

The August arrest by Canadian authorities did not stop Xu, the prosecutor said.

Xu was arrested Wednesday after leaving the Detroit airport.

In his pockets, agents didn't find more turtles.

They allegedly found $10,000 cash.

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