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A box turtle nibbles strawberries on the patio.

A federal judge sentenced a Livingston Parish couple to a year of probation each for selling vulnerable Louisiana turtles to an undercover agent who was investigating them as part of a multi-agency sting operation.

Judge Wendy B. Vitter of the U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana on Tuesday handed down the sentences for Maurepas residents Vincent Felix Rivere, 48, and Megan Lynn Shoemaker, 36. The couple pleaded guilty to selling Louisiana box turtles in 2017.

State law prohibits the trade of box turtles, and of the creatures' eggs or parts — and forbids people from taking wild box turtles for commercial purposes.

Besides state laws, Rivere and Shoemaker admitted to violating the Lacey Act, a federal law which forbids trading wildlife that has been illegally captured, possessed, bought or sold, according to court documents.

Working with a special agent from the federal Department of Homeland Security, an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent bought 29 box turtles from the couple in an Office Depot parking lot in Covington in 2017 — part of a sting operation that relied on cooperation from a third would-be box turtle seller who became an informant, court records show.

Identified in court documents only as "B.P.," the informant had testified earlier that they worked with Rivere and Shoemaker to ship box turtles to buyers in New Jersey despite knowing that was illegal.

The Fish and Wildlife agent then organized the sale with the couple by text message, agreeing to pay them $680 for 29 animals, the district attorney's office said.

After the agents arrived to meet them in the Office Depot lot, Rivere and Shoemaker started taking sacks of Louisiana common box turtles from the trunk of Rivere's car. The undercover agent handed Rivere $680 cash, and in exchange received 29 box turtles.

The couple left in their car, according to a statement signed by Rivere, and were arrested in a traffic stop soon after. 

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Prior to pleading guilty, they faced a maximum penalty of five years' prison time, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.

Characterized by their domed shells, box turtles live in an array of habitats, including prairies and woodlands, throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and the Gulf Coast.

The species is not considered endangered on a national level. But Michigan, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut classify box turtles as a species of special concern, and Maine lists it as endangered.

Habitat loss, vehicle strikes, and collection for the pet trade have contributed to the box turtle’s decline, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Large numbers of box turtles were captured and exported from the U.S. during the 1990s. Louisiana began restricting sales and capture in 1996.

Box turtles are currently considered a ‘restricted harvest’ species in the state. A license allows limited capture and possession, but sales are prohibited.

Staff writer Tristan Baurick contributed to this report.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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