Thousands of illegally harvested alligator eggs and several illegal alligator hunts were discovered by undercover officers working in a fully functional alligator farm set up by Florida's wildlife agency, leading to the arrest Wednesday of nine men on 44 felony charges.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission began setting up the undercover operation four years ago in an effort to track down unpermitted alligator and alligator egg sales. The agency leased land in rural Arcadia in southwest Florida, bought equipment and alligators and ran the Sunshine Alligator Farm using two undercover officers who set up residence on the property.
The officers would go to trade shows and began forming relationships with others in the tightly regulated industry.
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They soon set up a business arrangement with Robert Kelly Albritton and joined him on expeditions to harvest alligator eggs, which were brought to the agency's farm. Although Albritton had permits to harvest eggs, he took far more than he was allowed and violated rules restricting the number of nests from which he could take eggs, forged paperwork and violated a requirement that the activity be supervised by a certified wildlife biologist, according to an affidavit filed to obtain arrest warrants.
The agency said Albritton, 36, worked with three others to illegally harvest more than 10,000 alligator eggs. The eggs and hatchlings were sold to a Louisiana farm. He and three others are facing felony racketeering charges, unlawful possession of alligator eggs and other charges. All were being held in county jails Wednesday evening and jail documents didn't say whether they had lawyers.
In another case, four men were charged with unlawful possession of alligators and conspiracy to deal in stolen property after they sold 16 of the live reptiles to the undercover officers for an average of $100 each, driving the animals to the farm in a cow carrier with a tarp covering them.
In a third case, an alligator farm owner and hunting guide was charged with three felony counts of illegal possession of alligators and a felony count of killing a white Ibis. One of the officers saw alligators at Wayne Nichols' newly established farm and paperwork later revealed had not legally harvested them. Nichols captured a nearly 9-foot-long alligator, hooked it by the mouth and then tied it to a stake until he could text a client who paid $2,000 to kill it, according to an affidavit.
Three months later, Nichols was visiting the undercover farm when the officers suggested grilling hamburgers. The watched as Nichols shot and killed a white ibis, which is a protected species. Nichols cut a piece of breast meat from the bird and threw it on the grill and tossed the rest of the carcass to the farm alligators, according to the affidavit.
Nichols, 41, was being held Wednesday night in a county jail. Jail records didn't indicate whether he has a lawyer.
Florida Fish and Wildlife said they expect more arrests soon. Florida has more than 90 licensed alligator farms.
"Many of these suspects were part of a criminal conspiracy," Maj. Grant Burton, head of the agency's Investigations Section, said in a press release announcing the arrests. "Their crimes pose serious environmental and economic consequences. These suspects not only damage Florida's valuable natural resources, they also harm law-abiding business owners by operating black markets that undermine the legal process."