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Alleged turtle smuggler to stay behind bars

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — An alleged turtle smuggler will have to stay in his shell.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman refused to release Windsor resident Kai Xu on bond Monday, calling him a “professional smuggler” who lied and continued to break laws while heading an international smuggling operation involving rare, endangered and expensive turtles hidden in cereal boxes and rubber boots.

Xu, 26, dressed in a red Wayne County Jail jumpsuit, handcuffs and ankle chains, sobbed quietly during the brief federal court appearance.

“This is a professional smuggler,” Borman said after labeling Xu a flight risk and danger to the community. “This is big-time commerce and illegal commerce.”

The hearing came more than three months after Xu allegedly strapped 51 reptiles to his groin during a failed attempt to cross the Detroit-Windsor border. Federal prosecutors called him a serial smuggler who shipped turtles to far-flung locales, including China.

The alleged smuggling ring involved large profits. One shipment, intercepted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents in September, was worth more than $125,000 — and three times as much in China, where some of the turtles are almost extinct and prized as pets and food.

Defense lawyer David Cripps pressed for bond Monday. Xu’s parents, who sat in the courtroom, offered to move from Windsor and rent a home in Royal Oak in hopes of convincing prosecutors that their son would not flee the country.

Xu was born in China during a time when the government only let couples have one child, Cripps told the judge.

“They would do anything for him,” Cripps said.

Xu agreed to wear a tether and live under any restrictions set by prosecutors, Cripps said.

The lawyer tried to blunt damaging testimony from a September court hearing. That’s when prosecutors accused Xu of lying about being enrolled at the University of Waterloo.

Xu wasn’t enrolled at the time of his arrest but will be attending classes in January, Cripps said Monday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward urged Borman to keep Xu behind bars. Being free on bond would facilitate his alleged smuggling, she argued.

Xu, known as “Turtle Man” within the turtle black market, is facing criminal charges that could send him to prison for 10 years.

Federal agents started investigating Xu in March after an 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.

Woodward described an operation that peddled thousands of turtles, some endangered and worth $1,800 each, and relied on aliases and reptile couriers that Xu recruited through online forums and classified ads.

In late September, 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 an ad seeking someone to sell cosmetics for $4,000 a month. The real job involved smuggling turtles, prosecutors alleged.

The reptiles included diamondback Terrapins and 16 kwangtung river turtles.

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

“The amount of money is really quite staggering,” Woodward said Monday.

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).

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

The turtles are being cared for at the Detroit Zoo.

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