Gorilla Warfare

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

The three men named with Block in the new indictment, Kenny Dekker, James Lee, and Victor Buljovic, weren't unknown to the government. Kurt Schafer had spoken of their roles in the Bangkok Six scheme when was interviewed in Germany by U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents before Block was indicted for the first time in early 1992. (For unknown reasons, Schafer's information did not lead to an indictment.) Dekker, a Dutch citizen, and Lee, owner of Honey Pets in Singapore, were allegedly two of the organizers. Belgrade Zoo director Buljovic supposedly played a key strategic role. But neither the original captors of the apes in Borneo nor the person or persons in Moscow for whom they were destined have been named. Schafer says he doesn't know who they are, but he is confident Block, Dekker, and Lee do.

So why didn't Block name the others back in September, when he began "cooperating fully" with the government? Thanks to Schafer, prosecutors were already aware of their alleged involvement. And why weren't they indicted along with Block in the original four-count charge? Federal prosecutors refuse to discuss the matter in detail. U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Dan Gelber will only say, "Full cooperation means exactly that. Half-truths and reluctance to name names are simply not part of the equation." Prosecutors do point out, however, that the overall investigation continues.

Whether Dekker, Lee, or Buljovic will ever face prosecution in the U.S. remains uncertain, although Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis says extradition proceedings have begun against them.

Matthew Block pleased the animal rights contingent by helping indict Dekker, Lee, and Buljovic. And with his crucial help in the two earlier stings, he pleased the government even more. "We couldn't have had the success we did without Mr. Block," notes Fish and Wildlife's Pic centsn proudly. The day after the new indictment was issued, the Miami Herald proclaimed, "Animal Broker Helps Government, Restores Image," concluding that Block, "archenemy of animal conservationists all over the world, has suddenly become their hero." Added Block's attorney, Jon Sale: "This is what all those people were clamoring for."

"All those people," whose letters to Judge Kehoe had made such a passionate case against Block, weren't so easily appeased, though. "He will never be a hero," contends Nanci Alexander of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. "Justice will only be served if Matthew Block serves the maximum time in jail." Others wonder what the government actually gained. "Here's a guy who tells all sorts of lies to a Mexican zoo official to get him involved to save his own skin," says Donald Bierman, Victor Bernal's lawyer. "The amount of time and money and effort being spent on saving a gorilla which my clients weren't going to kill, which they were going to preserve in a zoo, the government has lost its perspective."

The Australian birds Clement Solano allegedly offered to sell were definitely not in Florida legally, but there's also no concern about the survival of those species, says Donald Bruning, curator of birds at the Bronx Zoo and a recognized ornithologist. Solano's red-tailed and white-tailed cockatoos are neither threatened nor endangered species.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent in Virginia, writing as a private citizen to Kehoe, adds that the seriousness of the Mexicans' alleged crime "pales in comparison to the [Bangkok Six] orangutan situation.... The Mexicans would have bought the animal, taken it to the zoo in Mexico, and there is no reason to believe this transaction, while unlawful, would trigger the removal of any animals from the wild. Mr. Block's orang situation is quite different.... This case did involve removal of animals from the wild population, thereby further jeopardizing the survival of that species. Had this operation not been accidentally exposed, there is no reason to believe the 'pipeline' would not have been used again to the further detriment of the survival of this or other endangered species."

But the prosecution of the lesser cases, even if they do pale in comparison to the Bangkok Six affair, may help to dry up such pipelines, argues Mark Schnapp, a former Miami federal prosecutor now in private practice. "You've got to look at the criminal problem you're trying to solve," says Schnapp, who isn't involved in any of the Block-related cases. "Typically you don't cut a deal with a top person to go against a lower person. But this isn't a typical case. You're dealing with a network of people that's probably very hard to penetrate, and if you have a hook into one, and you're trying to identify a clandestine market, if you have a buyer like a zookeeper who sees another zookeeper arrested, you might have achieved deterrence."

On February 9, Matthew Block stood before Judge Kehoe and pleaded guilty to one felony charge of conspiring to violate U.S. and international endangered species laws. This time Kehoe accepted Block's plea and scheduled sentencing for next Thursday, April 15. Under complicated federal sentencing guidelines, Kehoe will have some leeway in determining Block's punishment, which could be as harsh as five years in prison or as light as a fine and probation.

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