Detectives scour eBay, Craigslist in ivory bust; first charges filed under 2015 state wildlife-trafficking initiative

Apr 4, 2019 | News

By Evan Bush Seattle Times staff reporter

Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the first-ever charges Tuesday under the Washington Animal Trafficking Act, which became law more than three years ago when voters approved Initiative 1401.

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) detectives searched the web, sorted through allegedly coded language and conducted an undercover sting to investigate two separate cases, according to probable-cause documents. Ferguson on Tuesday charged Donald Frank Rooney, in Snohomish County Superior Court, and Yunhua Chen, in King County Superior Court, each with one felony count of unlawful trafficking. Both men are accused of selling elephant ivory, a practice the initiative banned.

Ferguson said it took law-enforcement officials time to figure out exactly how to investigate and prosecute these new crimes, but he thinks Washington state can be a model for others.

“It is important that, when 70 percent of the people vote to create a law, they know it’s going to be enforced,” he said, of the 2015 ballot initiative. “States can see … if we adopt a law like this, these cases can be prosecuted and we can have an impact on these endangered species.”

The initiative made illegal, with some exceptions, the distributing, buying, selling or trading parts of ten vulnerable or endangered species, including the elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, pangolin, marine turtle, shark or ray. The late Paul Allen spent more than $2 million on the initiative’s campaign.

When it passed, Washington was the first state to create new criminal penalties for trafficking endangered wildlife. Supporters pitched the initiative as a local deterrent designed to reduce demand in the United States for species that have been exploited or poached around the globe. African elephants, for example, have seen their populations plummet despite a ban on commercial ivory trade across borders. Many countries still allow domestic-elephant ivory trade, which can increase illicit demand.

Until Tuesday, though, the law had never been used.

WDFW detectives began investigating Rooney and Chen, separately, after searching online marketplaces for ivory items, according to probable-cause affidavits.

Last March, a detective discovered an eBay user who had posted several photos of carved statues that clearly displayed “Schreger Lines,” or markings that indicate elephant or mammoth ivory, the documents say. The detective got a search warrant for eBay records that identified the eBay user at Yunhua Chen, of Seattle, and then identified people who had made purchases from Chen. Then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents got in touch with a Louisiana man, who forfeited the statue he’d allegedly purchased from Chen for more than $1,300.

DNA testing “confirmed the statue was made of African elephant ivory,” according to the documents.

Rooney’s case began earlier, in October 2017, when a detective searched Craigslist for “netsuke,” a description that the detective wrote is sometimes “used to conceal ivory sales.” After determining the netsuke was likely ivory, WDFW set up an undercover sting and arranged for a plainclothes detective to meet Rooney, posing as a buyer. Rooney allegedly told the detective that he had inherited a collection of ivory from family members, and he said he was selling hundreds of pieces on eBay and Craigslist.

The detective bought three items from Rooney during her visit. A USFWS forensic scientist tested their DNA and found that all three were African elephant pieces, the detectives wrote.

Later, officers searched Rooney’s mobile home and seized more than 1,600 items they suspect might contain ivory, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.

Neither Rooney nor Chen responded to texts or calls to phones listed in their names.

Ferguson said it took time to develop a formula for working these cases.

After the initiative passed in 2015, his office convened a working group that included the WDFW, USFWS and local prosecutors to help define how to apply the law.

“This is a new crime,” Ferguson said. “It wasn’t like we could look to other states for as much guidance.”

Bill Sherman, chief of the attorney general’s environmental unit, said he also began discussions with Vulcan, the company Paul Allen used to promote the initiative, the Woodland Park Zoo and experts like the University of Washington’s Samuel Wasser, who has tracked illegal criminal-ivory networks.

“We wanted to not only learn how we should go about applying this new law, but also to have a practical set of steps to go about investigating and bringing criminal charges,” Sherman said. 

Meanwhile, WDFW began to train. Soon after the initiative passed, one of its detectives went to the USFWS forensic laboratory to learn how to identify ivory, WDFW Deputy Chief of Enforcement Paul Golden said. Officers attended antique auctions and sales to get a sense for the marketplace for endangered species. Every auction they attended featured ivory, or offered newly illicit tiger or lion hides for sale, he said.

Initially, Golden said officers “handled quite a few cases” with education, informing antique dealers and auction sellers of the new law.

“Let’s not go dragging grandpa’s antiques from an 80-year-old homeowner in downtown Port Orchard,” Golden said. “Let’s try to figure out who is bringing the product into the state and make that our first priority.”

Golden said detectives began to focus on the auction houses and online sales in which sellers used coded language, he said.

“We either try to look for people who clearly know what they’re doing is illegal or have a fairly large footprint and are trying to be either covert or discreet or misleading,” Golden said. “Both of these cases fit.”

The legislature last session provided funding that allowed WDFW to add two detectives to work on the initiative. He said several more cases are ready to be prosecuted, pending DNA test results.ADVERTISING

That’s been a challenge. Elephant ivory can be visually difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from mammoth and mastodon ivory, which are not covered by the law, Golden said. “DNA testing is the absolute,” he said. 

But the nearest facility that can do crime-lab DNA testing for elephants is the USFWS laboratory in Oregon. The federal agency has been helpful at testing material for WDFW investigations, but it can take nearly a year to receive results. 

Long term, “lab availability is going to be a challenge.”

Golden said WDFW has collected piles of ivory in evidence since the initiative passed. Additionally, nearly 100 pounds of ivory has been donated by citizens or given to the agency by USFWS for training.

By last month, detectives trained every WDFW officer on basic ivory identification. Golden said he foresees more investigations.

Ferguson said environmental crimes and wildlife trafficking are top priorities, too.

“We believe enforcement of the law can serve as a deterrent for this tragedy we see around the globe in terms of harm done to endangered species,” he said.

Get rid of your ivory legally

Woodland Park Zoo and WDFW are inviting the public to drop off products made from endangered species on Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. in the Hippo parking lot at the zoo’s south entrance at North 50th Street and Fremont Avenue North.   The items will go into safekeeping with law enforcement. No questions will be asked, the zoo says, in a news release about its “Toss the Tusk” event.

The first 25 drop-offs will receive a complimentary admission pass to the zoo.

Please follow and like us: