Gorilla Warfare

Vilified by animal protectionists, indicted for smuggling, praised by the feds. Matthew Block surprised everyone. Maybe even himself.

The following year agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized a shipment of monkeys arriving in Miami for Worldwide Primates that included two endangered mandrills from Equatorial Guinea. The monkeys had been declared in export papers as different, nonendangered species, and most had been tied together at the hips with twine or wire. Block protested the seizure, arguing he had not been aware of the shipping conditions or that he was receiving the rare species that arrived. (The Miami Fish and Wildlife office, which handled the investigation, refuses to discuss any matter relating to Block due to the pending case.)

The Centers for Disease Control revoked Block's federal import registration in 1990 after the CDC found 46 quarantine violations, but the license was restored after the problems were corrected.

A veterinarian and a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirm that Worldwide Primates is currently under investigation for possible violations of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, which sets standards for health and treatment of some captive animals.

Prosecutors won't say what leads, if any, Block's cooperation produced in the first few months after he signed the plea agreement. But word of the deal leaked out in late November, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis notified the court that a change of plea would be presented at a hearing already scheduled for December 11. Puzzled discussion soon arose among those following the case as to just what charges Block was pleading guilty. Felonies? Misdemeanors? Both? No one, not even prosecutors, seemed sure. James McGuirk, a Miami lawyer who had represented the IPPL's Shirley McGreal in an earlier lawsuit, wrote her that he had inquired of Lewis, who reportedly told him that "ultimately [Lewis] thought it would be up to the court to decide how to treat the charges. This is very unusual," McGuirk concluded. But it appeared that Block was pleading to misdemeanors, and animal conservation groups were worried that would allow him to walk away from the Bangkok Six debacle with only minimal punishment.

One way or another, any plea bargain had to be approved by the judge, and McGreal and her fellow animal protectionists had no intention of staying quiet as long as Block was on the loose. Tapping into a vast network of activist groups and conservation societies around the globe, McGreal called for members to write Judge Kehoe to express their concern that Block would be let off with a mere "slap on the wrist" and to urge the judge not to accept such an arrangement. An avalanche of letters began shortly A form letters, notes on flowered stationery, pleas from medical researchers, secretaries, students, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, and conservationist and former director of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Wildlife expert Dianne Taylor-Snow of Fresno, California, who led the efforts to nurse the Bangkok Six back to health after their discovery, wrote: "...Both wildlife agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lewis had promised that there would be no plea bargain without one felony and some jail time."

The U.S. Attorney's office declines to talk publicly about off-the-record discussions in the case, but knowledgeable sources confirm that such statements were made to Block and to animal protectionists monitoring the case. But that was before Block agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, they say, and that cooperation changed the equation. Lewis now contends, also, that the two felony counts that were dropped "arguably" didn't meet technical criteria under the statute and could have been contested or dismissed on appeal.

But all the arguments about the plea agreement were rendered meaningless by Judge Kehoe, who, after ascertaining Block was indeed pleading guilty to two misdemeanors and no felonies, rejected it on December 11 as "clearly contrary to manifest public interest." Also speaking at the hearing were attorney Charles Jaffe on behalf of several animal protection organizations and Nanci Alexander, president of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, a Pembroke Pines-based group which earlier that month had coordinated picketing outside the federal courthouse, demanding that Kehoe reject Block's plea bargain.

"A felony is the only offense that is appropriate for Mr. Block to plead guilty to in this case," Jaffe told the judge. "It is the only type of charge that sends a message to folks back there in Malaysia, in Singapore, in Thailand, that this type of activity will not be sanctioned. And yes, if you get an order from some gentleman in Miami, Florida, to send it to the Soviet Union or whatever, look out. He may lose his license if he is convicted of a felony. Wouldn't that be terrible? That is what we suggest is appropriate."

While it is not common for a federal judge to reject a plea bargain crafted by prosecutors and defendants, it's not necessarily surprising either, especially in complex cases like Block's, according to lawyers who practice before the federal bench. Still, Kehoe's ruling clearly took aback both defense and government lawyers, though they had nothing critical to say, at least publicly.

Animal protectionists, on the other hand, were ecstatic about Kehoe's decision; among the scores who wrote to thank him was Prince Philip of England. "I know that all the supporters of WWF [World Wide Fund For Nature] throughout the world would like me to express our very warm appreciation to you for your courageous action in a case that has attracted the closest attention of the world's conservation community," His Royal Highness wrote.

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