The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, filed felony and misdemeanor charges against eight people after a multi-year investigation discovered they were illegally trafficking venomous and unlawful snakes.
The investigation kicked off in 2020 after receiving reports and complaints about a black market that is used for the sale and purchase of highly dangerous venomous reptiles in Florida.
The state agency said in a press release on Friday that the illegal sale, purchase, transport and caging of these snakes poses a significant threat to the public, threatens the long-term well-being of state wildlife populations and undermines legitimate captive wildlife dealers operating legally.
The other concern is that if the animals were to escape, they could easily thrive and breed, given Florida’s subtropical climate.
The investigation uncovered nearly 200 snakes made up of 24 different species from seven different regions across the globe. The snakes were purchased or sold by undercover agents with the FWC.
Some of the species sold and purchased include the bushmaster, inland taipan, rhinoceros viper, African bush viper, Gaboon viper, green mamba, eyelash viper, spitting cobra, forest cobra and saw-scaled vipers.
“Some of these snakes are among the most dangerous in the world,” Major Randy Bowlin of the FWC Division of Law Enforcement said in the press release. “Florida’s rules and laws are in place to protect the public and prevent tragedies from occurring.”
A substantial portion of the illegal activity was conducted on specialized websites or closed social media pages. Once deals were arranged, in-person meetings were setup to conduct the transactions.
Some of the people who were involved included wholesale dealers who imported large shipments of nonnative venomous snakes from multiple countries across the globe.
FWC agents secured search warrants for many of the social media accounts and worked in conjunction with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“The actions of individuals such as the ones charged today make our jobs at VENOM 1 and 2 only that much harder,” Dr. Benjamin Abo, a primary investigator and medical director said. “We fight every day to keep people alive and minimize permanent complications after a tragic bite occurs. The rules for the transportation, caging and handling of these animals are in place for important reasons.”
The eight individuals arrested faced several misdemeanor and felony charges.
Delvin Eugene Sasnett, 32, of Eagle Lake, Florida was charged possessing an alligator, but investigators also said they found evidence to charge him with several serious violations involving venomous reptiles and other wildlife. He was also charged with child neglect.
William Chase Agee, 32, of Holly Hill, Florida, the release said, is unpermitted and allegedly involved in multiple illegal sales and purchases of venomous reptiles. Agee is also a convicted felon, and investigators said he was aware of the regulations concerning the snakes.
Dylan Isaac Levin, 30, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida was charged with sale of a controlled substance, sales of a venomous reptile to an unpermitted individual and improper venomous reptile records.
Edward Daniel Bays, 25, of Miami, Florida was charged with possession of a prohibited species, releasing of nonnative wildlife, transportation of prohibited species, transfer of prohibited species to or from an unlicensed person and transporting wildlife in an unsafe manner.
Jorege Javier Gonzalez, 23, of Miami was charged with illegal trafficking of prohibited species, specifically Burmese pythons. On multiple occasions, FWC investigators documented the illegal sale and transport of these invasive species.
Paul Edward Miller, 48, of Cape Coral, Florida, the release read, is a large importer of snakes, a well-established wildlife wholesaler and the owner of Calusa Animal Company. In addition to multiple violations regarding caging, labeling and husbandry, investigators said Miller aided in the falsification of required experienced hours documentation.
Joseph David Switalski, Jr., 37, of Plantation, Florida was described by the FWC as a well-established reptile dealer and the owner of JDS Holdings and Trading, LLC. The investigation revealed he was allegedly involved in multiple illegal sales and purchases of more than 60 snakes.
Timothy James Gould, 38, of Central City, Pennsylvania is alleged to be a well-established wildlife transporter, according to the FWC, and is not permitted in Florida for captive wildlife or venomous reptiles. Officials said Gould advertises his transport services online for wildlife dealers, and when he was arrested, he had 27 snakes in his possession illegally.
“During this investigation, officers saw and heard disturbing evidence of widespread illegal activity, not the least of which were individuals who indicated that they were releasing or planning to release prohibited reptiles into nearby native habitat to establish a readily accessible wild breeding population,” Investigations Section Captain Van Barrow said.