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Sting Nets Scores of Venomous Snakes

July 14, 2008

By Jack Brammer, Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Jul. 12–FRANKFORT — State conservation officers seized more than 125 venomous snakes, arrested 10 people and cited one other Thursday after a nearly two-year undercover investigation of those who allegedly illegally possessed, imported and trafficked the deadly reptiles.

Forty-four officers with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife confiscated the snakes and other reptiles, including an alligator, in the investigation, and are expected to issue more than 700 charges.

Animals seized include western diamondback rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes, cottonmouth water moccasins, northern and southern copperheads, cobras, great basin rattlesnakes, a gaboon viper, a puff adder and a 2-foot-long alligator.

Undercover officers bought more than 200 illegal reptiles during the investigation, code named “Twice Shy.” Some were purchased through the Internet.

Arrest warrants have been served in Bell, Harlan, Madison, Letcher and Boone counties.

Officers have already levied 416 charges, and are expected to issue at least 300 more charges as the investigation continues.

“This was a well-conducted and well-documented investigation that has put those who would engage in the illegal selling and buying of any wildlife in Kentucky on notice that they are subject to arrest and prosecution,” Bob Milligan, law enforcement director for the state fish and wildlife department, said in a statement.

“It is disturbing to me that individuals would keep such dangerous wildlife in their homes and in neighborhoods where they put their families, visitors and neighbors at such high risk,” he said.

Department spokesman Mark Marraccini said Internet sales “clued us in” to the investigation.

People obtain the animals for various reasons, he said, ranging from the desire for an exotic pet to collection of valuable venom to religious purposes. Handling snakes is practiced in a few churches based on the interpretation of Bible verses saying true believers can take up serpents without being harmed.

Marraccini said the department has done other undercover investigations but this is the first to focus on reptiles.

The seized animals were taken to the Kentucky Reptile Zoo at Slade near Natural Bridge. The alligator was left where it was found, Marraccini said.

Jim Harrison, director of the non-profit institution in Powell County, said his facility will hold them for evidence.

Harrison said the animals are in a variety of conditions, ranging from good to poor. They will remain in quarantine, unavailable for public viewing, for six months.

Those that survive will go to an accredited institution such as a zoo or educational facility, Harrison said.

“Anybody who takes and poaches any wildlife is taking away our natural resources,” he said.

For example, Harrison said, the timber rattlesnake takes eight to 10 years to achieve sexual maturity. “Something like this could wipe them out,” he said.

In general, Kentuckians with a permit may remove only five snakes from the wild, said Kristen Wiley, curator for the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. But a person who possesses such animals can only sell the captive offspring, not those taken from the wild, she said.

There are two types of state permits required to own such animals. One is for ownership and the other is for commercial license to sell offspring, Wiley said.

The state released information about the following arrested individuals, all of whom face misdemeanor charges of illegally buying, selling and possessing wildlife that carry a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

— Gregory James Coots, 36, of Middlesboro, faces more than 150 charges. The Associated Press reported that Coots is pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, where a Tennessee woman died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service in 1995.

Coots was charged Thursday with buying, selling and possessing illegal reptiles.

Officers seized 74 snakes from his home, including 42 copperheads, 11 timber rattlesnakes, three cottonmouth water moccasins, a western diamond rattlesnake, two cobras and a puff adder.

— Zechariah Johnson, 21, of Evarts in Harlan County, faces at least 24 charges.

His father, Ricky Johnson, 55, of Evarts, faces at least 59 charges.

Officers seized 24 timber rattlesnakes and copperheads from the residence.

— Verlin Ray Short, 36, of Mayking in Letcher County, faces at least 78 charges.

Officers seized 34 venomous snakes, including a western diamond rattlesnake, a great basin rattlesnake, timber rattlesnakes and northern and southern copperheads.

— Roger Leo Day, 33, of Harlan, faces six charges.

— Jerrod Allen, 21, of Berea, faces at least nine charges.

— Brian Fryer, 30, of Berea, faces at least 46 charges.

— Michael Peterson, 39, of Florence, faces at least 21 charges.

Officers seized an albino cobra and the frozen remains of a gaboon viper and copperheads.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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