S.F. pet store manager smuggled endangered turtles into U.S.

A 29-year-old pet store manager has pleaded guilty to smuggling endangered turtles from Asia and Australia and lying about it on U.S. Customs documents.

Prosecutors said San Francisco resident Coleman Lau tried to hide 14 baby Fly River turtles inside his clothing when he returned from Hong Kong to San Francisco International Airport in March 2004.

U.S. Attorney Scott N. Schools said Thursday that Lau knew it was illegal to import the turtles and lied on a customs declaration asking whether he was bringing wildlife into the U.S.

Fly River turtles enjoy a protected status in their native countries and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The amphibians – which cost up to $500 at pet stores – grow to be approximately two feet long and are native to fresh water in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Customs officials who seized Lau's turtles handed them over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which found homes for them at a research center and in California zoos and aquariums. Lau said in court he has been manager of a San Francisco fish and aquarium store for several years.

Lau could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. Lau, who is scheduled to be sentenced in February, faces a maximum penalty for each count of five years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

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