Department of Justice

Because Florida: Rhinoceros horn libation cup, Rathkeale rovers, and international smuggling

imagesAs fans of Antiques Roadshow already know, rhinoceros horn libation cups are pricey. A few years back, the show featured a set of five cups valued at over $1 million.

We couldn’t resist posting this press release from acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg’s office, even though there’s no mention of the value of the cup that led to Irish national Michael Hegarty’s downfall. (That’s not his cup pictured here).

It involves international smuggling, “Operation Crash,” the “Rathkeale Rovers,” and, of course, the verboten rhinoceros horn cup.

Michael Hegarty, an Irish national, was sentenced in federal court in Miami, Florida, today to 18 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release for fraudulently facilitating the transportation and concealment of a libation cup carved from the horn of an endangered rhinoceros, announced Jeffrey H. Wood, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, and Benjamin G. Greenberg, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. U.S. District Court Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks issued the sentence.

In May 2014, a federal grand jury sitting in Miami, Florida, returned an indictment charging Michael Hegarty and a co-defendant with conspiring to traffic a libation cup made from an endangered rhinoceros. In addition to conspiracy, the indictment included charges for smuggling the cup from the United States to the United Kingdom and for obstructing justice by attempting to influence a witness. According to the indictment, and a Joint Factual Statement by the parties, Hegarty, along with co-defendant Richard Sheridan and a Florida resident, purchased the libation cup from an auction house in North Carolina. The group then transported the cup to Florida and falsified documentation to smuggle the cup from the United States.

“Today’s sentencing is the result of the strong partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those who engage in illegal trade in protected wildlife,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “There is a frequent connection between wildlife smuggling and organized criminal activity.  We remain committed to combatting this illegality.”

“We are committed to combatting international wildlife trafficking,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg.  “Our experienced prosecutors and law enforcement agents will continue to investigate, prosecute and bring to justice any violators who exploit and destroy protected wildlife for profit.”

“Today’s sentencing sends a message to those who profit from the slaughter and illicit trade of wildlife, you will be caught and prosecuted no matter where you hide,” said Ed Grace, Acting Chief of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I commend our special agents who connected this defendant to the Rathkeale Rovers, a transnational organized crime syndicate responsible for trafficking endangered rhinoceros products worldwide.  Thank you to our international counterparts and to the U.S. Department of Justice for arresting, extraditing, and prosecuting this individual.”

Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth.  They have no known predators other than humans.  All species of rhinoceros are protected under United States and international law.  Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by over 170 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets.

Hegarty was arrested on Jan. 19, 2017, in Belgium pursuant to an international Red Notice submitted by the United States. Red Notices are requests, coordinated through Interpol, that ask member countries to provisionally arrest fugitives within their borders so that extradition proceedings can begin. In July 2017, Belgium extradited Hegarty to the United States for his role in trafficking a libation cup made from the horn of an endangered rhinoceros. Hegarty’s arrest and subsequent extradition were part of “Operation Crash,” a nationwide crackdown on criminal trafficking in rhinoceros horns.

Federal courts determine a sentencing range for every convicted defendant. This range is found by applying factors that are common for particular crimes, as set out in the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Although guidelines are advisory, many courts do sentence within the range. Hegarty’s eighteen month sentence was the high end of the sentencing range for his crime.

Operation Crash was conducted by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in coordination with other federal and local law enforcement agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.  A “crash” is the term for a herd of rhinoceros.  Operation Crash was an effort to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns.

The investigation by was handled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section are in charge of the prosecution.

Nation’s deputy AG blames opioid crisis on docs and big pharma

Gov. Rick Scott’s boasted about the $53 million in his budget proposal targeted toward the state’s opioid epidemic.

But more than half of that money — $27 million — is from a federal grant.

It’s the second year of the “State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis” grant in Florida, which the feds recently approved, according to a state Department of Children and Families deputy secretary who spoke at a House committee meeting last week.

Like Scott, his pal President Donald Trump and his administration have targeted the opioid crisis as public health crisis.

Here’s an excerpt from a speech U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made at the 50 State Summit on Public Safety in Washington, D.C., this morning. (Maybe his boss, AG Jeff Sessions, was tied up nearby testifying before a House panel).

We are also facing the challenges resulting from the unprecedented opioid crisis.  The news is full of heartbreaking stories of parents burying their teenage children, of Neonatal Intensive Care Units overflowing with opioid-addicted babies, of EMS workers racing from one drug overdose to another, and of medical examiners running short of resources to handle the somber extra business.

The overdose numbers are astounding.  In 1990, there were 8,000 deaths. The rate was relatively constant as a proportion of the American population for decades.  Then it increased approximately 700 percent over the next 26 years.

In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses.  On average, that means during this speech – another American will have died from a drug overdose.  This is unacceptable.

Opioids are driving this increase in overdose deaths.  The opioid problem began several years ago when doctors — aided by pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies — began overprescribing and diverting powerful prescription opioids.

In some instances, the doctors were untrained and unaware of the addictive nature of the drugs they were prescribing.  In other instances, the doctors were little more than drug dealers with advanced degrees. They operated “pill mills” where medical care was nonexistent, cash was king, and prescription opioids flowed freely.

Our newest challenge is fentanyl, a synthetic drug produced primarily in China. It is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.  It is so powerful that a quantity equal to a few grains of table salt can kill a person.

Chinese chemists try to stay a step ahead of law enforcement by making chemical analogues of fentanyl, such as carfentanil. It is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. In fact, carfentanil is intended as an elephant tranquilizer. It is manufactured in Chinese laboratories, shipped to the United States or Mexico, mixed with heroin, and then sold to addicts who are often unaware of what they are ingesting. Just last week, the DEA announced its intent to emergency schedule these fentanyl analogues.  This is a major step in cracking down on these deadly drugs.

The President recently declared that the opioid crisis a “public health emergency.”  The declaration will redirect federal resources to help fund treatment efforts.

At the Department of Justice, we use every tool at our disposal to stop the rise in violence and to end the drug crisis.