Gorilla Warfare

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

That wide range of possibilities has contributed to a new flood of letters to the judge. He has received hundreds of them, as many as 30 each day. Most of them portray Block as a wanton destroyer of endangered animals for fabulous profits, and ask the judge to impose the maximum penalty. But for the first time there also are some pleading for leniency and describing Block as a victim of "terrorism" by activists who place animal safety above contributions to human welfare by animals used in scientific research.

Some of the latter might have been dispatched in response to a call for support for Block in the Jewish Press, a national newspaper based in New York. "An outrageous miscarriage of justice is being perpetuated [sic] against a wonderful Orthodox Jewish husband and father of two small children by Jew-hating 'animal rights' extremists," began a letter to the editor from one Sharon Katz of North Miami Beach. (Several Jewish associates and supporters of Shirley McGreal and the International Primate Protection League immediately protested to the Jewish Press and denounced any anti-Jewish motives in the campaign against Block.)

Then on March 12, with sentencing only a month away, Block changed the equation yet again. Sometime after his guilty plea a month earlier, he had changed attorneys. And he had changed his mind. He wanted to withdraw his guilty plea.

Well-known California attorney Michael Metzger, who has represented Block formally and informally for several years, filed a lengthy motion arguing that Judge Kehoe had erred in December when he rejected Block's first plea agreement: guilty on two misdemeanor counts. Kehoe's decision, Metzger claimed, was wrong because it was based on public pressure, the hundreds of protest letters. "Matt felt he was given the bum's rush into the plea," Metzger says in characteristically blunt language. "It actually put him in a worse position than he was in in September."

Now Block wanted to reinstate the original agreement or, barring that, go to trial on the original four-count indictment. Lawyers familiar with the federal court system say it's not unusual for a defendant to try to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing, which is usually allowed. But to try to plead guilty to different charges stemming from an earlier indictment is unusual.

Prosecutor Lewis asked Kehoe to deny Metzger's motion, and he also asked that Metzger be barred from representing Block in Kehoe's court. The reason: last August a federal judge, citing professional misconduct, suspended Metzger from practicing before the federal bench in San Francisco. (The suspension remains in limbo while Metzger appeals the ruling.) Known for practical jokes and colorful speech, Metzger was disciplined for antics such as calling and writing a federal prosecutor requesting "a DNA, RNA test to see what species you are." Metzger also called another prosecutor an "asshole" and challenged him to "go mano a mano" outside the courtroom.

Kehoe rejected Block's motion to withdraw his guilty plea and allowed Metzger to represent him in court. The letters are still arriving at Kehoe's chambers. And sentencing is still set for next Thursday. If Block does spend time in jail, even if he doesn't lose his import license, he stands to lose at least some clients in the risky business he's been operating for fifteen years.

"In Germany it will definitely be hard for him to get a legal import license, but in the States, as far as I can see, he's got excellent connections," says Kurt Schafer, who severed his own professional connections to the wildlife trade about two years ago. He was almost 30 years old, and he'd been in the bird business since his teens, when he began keeping parrots and pheasants at home. But the Bangkok Six scandal, he says, took away his taste for the exotic life he led in Thailand. He moved back to his hometown 30 miles outside Frankfurt and he started looking for a job.

"You think, what can you do? If you read the newspaper, you see jobs available. I saw there was a job for a stockbroker, so I called them up." Schafer was a stockbroker for awhile until he decided to look for something a bit less frenetic. Now he has a quieter job at a Frankfurt bank. He misses the heat and color of Southeast Asia, he says, but he doesn't miss buying and selling birds. "I don't keep any bird any more. If you change your mind, you don't want to have birds any more in cages. I finished it.

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