A Monterey Park man pleaded guilty Thursday to animal smuggling after customs officers discovered three deadly king cobra snakes hidden in potato chip cans in a package shipped to his home, officials said.
Rodrigo Franco, 34, admitted to smuggling more than 20 cobras — which sell on the black market for about $2,000 each — in at least three shipments, according to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court. In exchange for one shipment, Franco sent a package to Hong Kong with six protected turtles.
He faces 20 years in federal prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. He is due to be sentenced in December.
For months, prosecutors said, Franco used WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging platform, to negotiate shipments of snakes and turtles to and from Hong Kong.
King cobras can be brought into the U.S. only with an export or re-export certificate from the country of origin and a declaration filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But neither Franco nor the seller filed any of the required documents.
Instead, prosecutors said, Franco tried to smuggle the cobras into the country using a phony name on the shipments to avoid getting caught.
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 protected turtles wrapped in socks to Hong Kong. That package also was intercepted.
The next day, a postal worker — with federal agents close behind — delivered the package with the turtles shipped from Hong Kong to Franco’s Monterey Park home. Authorities had removed the cobras from the package because 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 in the home, according to federal court records, they found a glass tank with a young crocodile, diamondback terrapins, mud turtles and alligator snapping turtles — all of which are protected species.