A Covington mailman implicated in an international turtle-smuggling ring recently turned state’s evidence, luring a cash-carrying reptile buyer from Hong Kong into a sting operation at a Florida food court.

The arrest of the buyer, Hon Kit “John” Lau, capped a monthslong investigation in which the authorities untangled a web of deception by subpoenaing bank records and email accounts and following illegal shipments of North American wood turtles halfway around the world. A federal grand jury in New Orleans indicted Lau last month, and a detailed account of the intricate case has emerged in court documents.

At the center of the operation was a St. Tammany Parish postal worker, Lawrence Treigle Jr., who according to authorities has admitted his role as a seasoned intermediary in the turtle trade, a lucrative business that netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars from Asian buyers.

The case highlights the shady underworld of illicit wildlife trafficking, an international, multibillion-dollar business that often involves endangered or threatened species.

“Wildlife trafficking is a high-profit, low-risk crime,” said Ed Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that arrested Lau. “You can make as much money dealing in illegal wildlife species as you can dealing in arms and heroin and cocaine, but your chances of going to jail or being caught are less.”

Treigle, who has been on the radar of federal investigators for a decade or longer, has not yet been charged in the case. At the very least, though, he appears to have violated state law by transporting turtles without a license, according to court records.

If prosecuted, he likely will receive consideration for the substantial role he played in Lau’s capture and for offering agents a window into how the deals were done. He also assisted the authorities with another turtle-related arrest over the weekend, though details of that case weren’t available Sunday.

Court documents show that Treigle became a valuable asset to the authorities after they searched his Stephanie Lane home in June, outlining his involvement in the scheme and arranging for further foreign shipments of turtles that investigators traced to make two arrests in Hong Kong.

Wanted as exotic pets

Before cooperating, Treigle allegedly received dozens of turtles from John P. Tokosh, a convicted reptile trafficker in Pennsylvania, and forwarded them to a “drop box address” in California, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court. From there, the complaint said, the animals would be repackaged and smuggled into Hong Kong via express mail services, “thereby circumventing the official export channels.”

Officials have seen a resurgence in recent years in the poaching and trafficking of North American wood turtles, a threatened species often found in the northeastern United States. In January, for instance, a man in Washington state was sentenced to a year behind bars after he and two co-defendants admitted to a similar scheme that involved smuggling eastern box and North American wood turtles, among others, into Hong Kong.

The turtles are sold in Asian markets as exotic pets and may also be used for medicinal purposes, Grace said. “There’s a belief in a lot of Asian cultures that turtles bring longevity because turtles live long,” he said.

North American wood turtles, the species Treigle has acknowledged peddling, are more likely to be sold as pets.

“People want to have it because it’s a rare species,” Grace added. “You can buy them here in the United States — in most cases, illegally — for a couple hundred dollars. By the time the wood turtle gets to Asia, it’s being sold for anywhere from $1,000 to $1,700” apiece.

After receiving wire transfer payments from Hong Kong, Treigle would make withdrawals and mail a portion of the proceeds to Tokosh for capturing the wood turtles in the wild. Tokosh, who also has not yet been charged in the federal case, has a history of dealing in exotic animals that dates back to 1998, when he was arrested on allegations he tried to buy endangered bog turtles from undercover conservation officers — a bust that was part of a nationwide initiative dubbed “Operation Herp Scam.”

“He’s just been decimating the turtle population in Pennsylvania,” the arresting officer told a local newspaper reporter at the time, estimating Tokosh had taken as many as 500 turtles from the wild the year before his arrest.

Katrina intervened

In a separate criminal case, in 2006, Tokosh pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to serve a year and a day behind bars for his role in the sale of smuggled Indian star and Burmese star tortoises. In that case, the authorities searched Tokosh’s home and found emails showing Treigle, the Covington resident, had been brokering deals even then for the sale of wood turtles.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents had been preparing a warrant to search Treigle’s home during that investigation, court records show, but Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans before the warrant could be finalized.

Treigle’s bank records show he received some $206,000 in wire transfers from Hong Kong between November 2011 and October 2012. Relying on his own employer, he used U.S. Postal Service express mail frequently during that time to ship turtles, often providing a variation of his rental home in Slidell as the return address.

Federal agents learned this summer that Treigle had opened a new bank account in January and received at least nine wire payments from Hong Kong totaling nearly $79,000 in new payments.

Treigle would forward turtles he received from Tokosh to a contact in California, who in turn sent the reptiles on to Hong Kong, according to the criminal complaint. One such shipment was intercepted by postal inspectors earlier this year. Investigators found 11 adult North American wood turtles wrapped in duct tape and bundled in cloth bags — packaging intended to restrict the creatures’ movement during shipping.

Investigators began to home in on Lau, the Hong Kong buyer, in the weeks after they searched Treigle’s home. They received a search warrant to review Lau’s email account and found messages between him and other reptile dealers “discussing the arrival of turtles, shipping costs and where to send payments,” according to the criminal complaint.

A Florida get-together

Cooperating with federal agents, Treigle contacted Lau directly and offered to sell him 100 wood turtles for a lump sum payment, to be delivered in person, saying he “knew a competitor that would buy all the wood turtles he could get for $1,000 per pair and pay in cash.”

Lau agreed to pay $25,000 up-front and another $25,000 once Treigle produced the turtles. Treigle tried to persuade Lau to come to New Orleans, but the two eventually settled on an Aug. 19 meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Lau, whose name was added to a government watch list during the investigation, entered the country Aug. 14 and declared $115,000 at customs, according to the complaint — cash he said was intended for “gambling in Daytona.” He also was carrying a dozen plastic tubs with holes drilled in their tops, containers commonly used for smuggling reptiles. “Lau stated that he was no longer into reptiles and currently a pig farmer,” the complaint says.

Treigle met Lau on Aug. 19 at The Mall at Millenia food court in Orlando, where Lau gave Treigle the first $25,000 payment. He declined to take the turtles Treigle had brought from Louisiana, asking him to mail them to the usual address in California.

“There was a conversation about trust, and Lau said that he felt better and trusted Treigle after meeting with him,” the complaint says, noting that investigators monitored the conversation by video and audio. “Lau said that he was a little nervous with Treigle bringing the wood turtles because he knew that undercover agents create stings to arrest people.”

Agents arrested Lau shortly after the meeting ended. The grand jury in New Orleans quickly charged him with violating the Lacey Act, which forbids the trafficking of wild animals that have been transported in violation of state or foreign laws.

J. Michael Small, an Alexandria defense attorney representing Lau, declined to comment on the case Sunday.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.