RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A Franklinville man who law enforcement said made more than $100,000 from illegally selling turtles was sentenced to more than a year in prison, according to the Department of Justice.

DOJ officials said a federal judge in Wilmington sentenced Jesse James Freeman, 48, to 18 months in prison and three years of post-release supervision. Freeman will also have to pay a $25,000 fine to the Lacey Act Reward Fund. The judge also banned him from owning wild-caught wildlife and any wildlife without documentation of origin during his supervised release.

Freeman plead guilty on Sept. 30, 2020, to trafficking turtles in violation of the Lacey Act, the DOJ said. In his guilty plea, they said Freeman admitted that between January 2017 and September 2018, he supplied turtles to middlemen throughout the country. He said those turtles were meant to be smuggled into Asia.

According to the DOJ, Freedman collected the turtles himself and hired poachers to illegally obtain them throughout North Carolina. They said he trafficked at least:

  • 722 eastern box turtles
  • 122 spotted turtles
  • 3 wood turtles

Freeman personally received at least $121,000 in payment for those turtles, according to the DOJ. Their total market value in Asia exceeded $1.5 million.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles.”

Possessing and selling turtles is illegal in North Carolina. The federal Lacey Act prohibits transporting wildlife in interstate commerce if the wildlife were illegally taken under state laws.

Eastern box, spotted and wood turtles are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES provides a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose survival is considered threatened by trade. The species are not threatened with extinction but wildlife experts fear they may be if their trade is not regulated.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, considers the illegal collection and commercialization of native reptiles to include eastern box turtles a high priority, and we will continue to work closely with our state partners and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute these important cases,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement.

The USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in Raleigh conducted the investigation with assistance from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. The operation was a part of ongoing efforts to combat the trafficking of turtles and tortoises native to the United States.