2017-06-15 / Top News

Two-year undercover FWC operation busts gator ring


Allen Register and Patty Register with Big Daddy. 
COURTESY PHOTO Allen Register and Patty Register with Big Daddy. COURTESY PHOTO On a dark night two years ago, thieves cut through the fences, then cut the padlocks on the incubators at Gatorama on U.S. 27 in Palmdale, stealing 1,100 alligator eggs from the popular family attraction and farm where Patty Register and Allen Register hold two of the state’s 30 permits to collect eggs from public wetlands.

The Registers, veterans of decades in the business, also raise alligators and crocodiles for meat and skins as one of roughly 100 such farming operations permitted in the state.

But they greeted with restraint the news that investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the FWC, had finally arrested nine suspects late last month.

Those eggs were worth about $60 apiece, explains Mrs. Register. These particular suspects may or may not have stolen Gatorama’s eggs.

“I’m sitting here with a $66,000 loss and I still don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “Not only do I not have my money, I don’t have information.”


Baby gator hatchlings. 
COURTESY FWC PHOTO Baby gator hatchlings. COURTESY FWC PHOTO FWC officers charged the men with “possession of American alligator, alligator egg harvesting, interstate transport of alligator eggs and hatchlings, falsifying official records, dealing in stolen property, conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering and other wildlife violations. These serious charges include first-, second- and third-degree felonies,” according to a press release.

They cited a total of 44 felony violations among the nine suspects, documenting 10,000 eggs harvested illegally.

“I think there are more out there,” says Mr. Register, who helps coordinate egg harvesting for the state. “I’m glad they got as many as they got but I wish they would stick this out longer.”

In 2015, he recalls, “we went out to at least 150 nests that had already been robbed, so at an average of 30 eggs harvested per nest, that’s 4,500 eggs. The retention rate per nest is about 26 or 27 eggs, so it hurts the state and it hurts us.”

The state receives $5 per egg. To get to the nests in often wild and inaccessible countryside, both farmers and state officials, and probably often the thieves themselves, fly over, looking for trails and following them to trees, then marking the positions with GPS, says Mr. Register.

“We went to those 150 nests and we had to open them to see if anything was in there, so we were spending a lot of helicopter time at $450 to $600 an hour” after thieves spoiled the nests.

Investigators spent the next two years infiltrating the alligator farming community to learn the extent of violations, says Robert Klepper, an FWC spokesman. The suspects, he says, “were selling eggs and hatchlings to a farm in Louisiana.”

He declined to name the farm or its level of involvement, noting only that the investigation is ongoing and more arrests are expected.

“This was a good effort, but they have not even gotten at the tip of the iceberg,” surmises Mrs. Register.

Four of those arrested list residences in Arcadia, three in Fort Denaud, and one each in Cape Coral and Punta Gorda. They range in age from 22 to 73.

“Many of these suspects were part of a criminal conspiracy,” said Maj. Grant Burton who heads the FWC’s investigation arm.

“Their crimes pose serious environmental and economic consequences. Those suspects not only damage Florida’s natural resources, they also harm law-abiding business owners by operating black markets that undermine the legal process.”

Gatorama

For information about Gatorama and its tours, hands-on exhibitions and other programs, visit www.gatorama.com. ¦

Those arrested and the charges are:

Robert Kelly Albritton (DOB 01/21/1981) of Arcadia

• One felony count of Racketeering.

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.

• One felony count of Scheme to Defraud.

• Fourteen felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

Robert Thomas Beasley (DOB 02/05/1979) of Arcadia

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.

• Six felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

David Wentworth Nellis (DOB 10/10/1943) of Punta Gorda

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.

• One felony count of Uttering a Forged Instrument.

• One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs.

Carl Wayne Pickle Jr. (DOB 12/22/1969) of Arcadia

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering.

• Four felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligator Eggs/Alligators.

Wayne Andrew Nichols (DOB 07/15/1975) of Arcadia

• Three felony counts of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.

• One felony count of Unlawful Killing of White Ibis.

• One first-degree misdemeanor count of Attempting to Take White Ibis.

Christopher Lee Briscall (DOB 01/28/1995) of Fort Denaud

• One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Matthew Edward Evors (DOB 10/20/1992) of Cape Coral

• One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Isaiah Joseph Romano (DOB 12/17/1994) of Fort Denaud

• One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

Jacob Oliver Bustin-Pitts (DOB 11/11/1993) of Fort Denaud

• One felony count of Unlawful Possession of Alligators.

• One felony count of Conspiracy to Commit Dealing in Stolen Property.

— From the FWC website: “Because the alligator hide and meat market is extremely volatile, alligator farming is a very tenuous business. For a primer on what alligator farming involves, read the extension publications below and review the alligator farming regulations, 68A- 25.004, 68A- 25.031, and 68A- 25.052 FAC. Also, the availability of permits to collect wild alligator eggs and hatchlings is limited. Only 30 alligator farmers may be permitted to participate in each of the egg and hatchling programs, and these permits are usually reserved by existing alligator farms.” For more information on alligator farming, the FWC offers details here: http:// myfwc.com/ wildlifehabitats/ managed/ alligator/ farming/

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