Federal Undercover Agents Seize Rare Cacti, Gila Monsters

Times Staff Writer

About 400 rare cacti and peyote plants and two endangered, poisonous lizards have been seized by U. S. Fish and Wildlife agents from two San Fernando Valley homes and a greenhouse near Palmdale, authorities said Monday.

The seizure of the plants and two Gila monsters could result in the filing of 60 criminal charges against an attorney and the owners of plant businesses in Tarzana and Littlerock, said Ed Dominguez, a special agent of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If convicted, each could get up to a year in jail and as much as $20,000 in fines.

Dominguez said the cacti, on the rare-and-endangered species list, are illegally imported from remote Mexican desert areas for resale at up to $500 each. The Gila monsters also are on the endangered species list, Dominguez said. The peyote plants were seized because the plant can be refined as a narcotic, he said.

Wildlife agents used search warrants on Sunday to confiscate the plants from the Van Nuys home of attorney Steven Franklin Sobel, and the Cactus Ranchito, on Topeka Drive in Tarzana, which also is the home of Edward and Elizabeth Gay.

Agents also confiscated plants and the two reptiles in Littlerock, at Cactus Data Plants, which is owned by Wendell S. Minnich.

A woman who answered the telephone at the Gay business and residence said, "We won't be discussing it." She declined to identify herself. Sobel could not be reached for comment.

Minnich acknowledged having the rare cacti and peyote but said he did not obtain them illegally or sell them in violation of federal law. He declined to comment about the Gila monsters.

"I've owned some of these plants for up to 20 years, and they weren't put on the (endangered species) lists until six years ago," he said. "What they're doing is trying to make the cactus hobbyists aware of what is endangered and threatened," Minnich added, referring to the fish and wildlife officials.

Minnich said he "may have gotten the peyote from some of the other dealers."

"Peyote is a very interesting cactus," Minnich said, denying he kept the plants for use as a narcotic.

"I don't even drink," he said.

Dominguez said the seizures followed an 18-month investigation, during which agents posed as collectors and dealers of rare plants. The agent said he doubted the owners of the homes and businesses searched Sunday were collecting and selling the peyote for use as a narcotic.

"The cactuses have extreme botanical value . . . they can be sold for up to $500 each," Dominguez said. "There are collectors out there who will pay that much. Some people are interested in athletics, some in animals, and there are people who have botanical interests."

Dominguez said the scientific names of the plants seized were Azeekium ritteri, Ariocarpus agavoides, Encephalacarpus strobiliformis and Ariocarpus scapharosprus.

Undercover agents were told the plants were removed from the Mexican desert and smuggled across the border in luggage or sacks of dirty laundry, Dominguez said.

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