Rare Plants From Mexico : 9 Indicted in Cacti Smuggling

Times Staff Writer

Seven California residents, a Mexican businessman and a retired Arizona doctor have been indicted by a grand jury in Tucson on federal charges of smuggling rare cactus plants into the United States from Mexico, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.

Among those named in two indictments handed down Wednesday were a Van Nuys attorney and two couples who operated cactus shops in Tarzana and Littlerock, near Lancaster.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents posing as collectors and dealers said the nine defendants collected about 270 of the endangered cacti, commonly referred to as "living rocks," from remote desert canyons between Mexico City and Monterrey.

The plants, which sell at $4 to $500 each, depending on their scarcity and quality, were smuggled from Mexico to be sold to U.S. collectors or exported to Japan, Germany and other countries where the demand for succulents is greater than in the United States, Fish and Wildlife agent George M. Sutton said.

Undercover agents last March seized 220 of the endangered cacti from the Cactus Ranchito in Tarzana, operated by Edward G. Gay, 70, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, 62; Cactus Data Plants in Littlerock, operated by Wendell S. Minnich, 38, and his wife, Tambra, 24, and the residence of Van Nuys attorney Steven F. Sobel, 31.

The five were not charged with any criminal offenses until the indictments were handed down on Wednesday.

Also named in the indictments were collectors Steven C. Southwell, 31, a San Jose schoolteacher; John K. Wakamatsu, 33, a Los Angeles chemist; Dr. Frank F. Ludwig, a retired Tucson physician; and Walter A. Fitz-Maurice, a San Luis Potosi, Mexico, businessman.

The indictments charge the nine defendants with trading in protected species of cacti and with conspiracy and smuggling. The plants, known scientifically as Aztekium ritteri and Ariocarpus agavoides, are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and by a 91-nation treaty on wild animals and plants adopted in 1973.

The defendants will not be arrested but will be summoned to appear before a federal magistrate June 12, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Philip G. Espinosa.

If convicted, the defendants could face up to five years in prison and fines of $250,000 on each of the counts.

Espinosa said the cacti probably will not be returned to Mexico but will go into museums for scientific and educational study.

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