Customs officers made a startling discovery earlier this year while inspecting a package on its way to a Monterey Park apartment: three highly venomous king cobra snakes, each about 2 feet long, hidden in potato chip cans.
On Tuesday, the alleged intended recipient — Rodrigo Franco, 34 — was arrested on a federal smuggling charge after a monthslong investigation that also involved the seizure of a young crocodile, three alligator snapping turtles and five diamond back terrapins, all of which are protected species, federal officials said.
For months, according to federal court records, Franco used WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging platform, to negotiate shipments of snakes and turtles to and from Hong Kong.
In March, authorities intercepted the package with the three deadly snakes along with three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. That same day, Franco had attempted to mail six other turtles wrapped in socks to Hong Kong. That package also was intercepted.
A day later, a postal worker delivered the package with the turtles shipped from Hong Kong to Franco's Monterey Park home. Authorities had removed the cobras from the package, noting that delivering them posed a safety risk.
After the package was accepted, federal agents approached with a warrant to search the home. Inside a children's bedroom, they found a glass tank with the crocodile, along with tanks containing endangered turtles.
Franco told authorities that he had previously received two other packages with 20 king cobras, all of which, he said, had died in transit.
Franco was charged with one count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States, which carries a maximum of 20 years in federal prison. He is scheduled to be arraigned in August.
Officials said two of the cobras seized in March are receiving care at the San Diego Zoo, while the third died for unknown reasons.
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