The big jet from Frankfurt, Germany, dropped gently through vaporous clouds to the runway at Miami International Airport, and Kurt Schafer's heart raced for a few seconds as he wondered, again, if the threats had been serious. Somebody was going to pocket $10,000 for shooting him as he disembarked; at least that's what a voice had told him in several predawn phone calls. He wasn't sure who was making them, but he took them seriously. And he certainly believed that several of his former business associates certainly wouldn't mind seeing him dead, or probably even killing him themselves.
When he entered the terminal, he did find two people waiting for him, but they weren't hit men. They were agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who accompanied Schafer out into the heavy heat of that August afternoon. Together they drove from the airport toward downtown Miami.
Safe in his room at the Sheraton Brickell Point, gazing out over a placid Biscayne Bay, Schafer settled in and waited for Monday, August 24, when the trial of Matthew Block was to begin. Block, a prominent Miami animal dealer, was facing federal charges of brokering a complex and illegal scheme to smuggle endangered apes from the jungles of Indonesia to Moscow. Schafer had been part of the scheme, and it was he who had provided the information to break open the case in early 1990, and revealed a rare glimpse into the secret, highly lucrative world of illegal animal trade. Now, with a guarantee of immunity, Schafer was to be the U.S. government's star witness against Block, the only person then charged in what was clearly a far-flung cooperative venture.
But Block did not go to trial that Monday. Hurricane Andrew's early-morning arrival changed everything. The storm destroyed Block's secluded South Dade home and became one of several disconcerting twists in a case that is still unresolved, and is still provoking the kind of extraordinary public passion reserved for the most difficult of moral dilemmas A in this case, the responsibilities of human beings toward nonhuman beings. Matthew Block, a pale, bearded young man of just 31, has become an international symbol of that dilemma and a lightning rod for that passion.
Kurt Schafer remembers meeting Block in Thailand, early in 1989, when neither was yet 30 years old. Schafer, a native of Germany, had been living in Bangkok for about six years, trading in exotic birds. Both men had begun their careers as teenagers, Block while still a student at Miami Beach's Mesivta of Greater Miami-Louis Merwitzer Senior High School. Schafer knew of Block long before their first encounter. "His name is very famous all over the world," Schafer says. "Huge dealer, especially for monkeys. Top guy. Top gun." But despite their professional similarities, the two were strikingly different: Block slender and reserved, his manner opaque; Schafer large, robust, articulate.
It was a brief meeting, Schafer recalls, arranged through Dutch animal dealer Kenny Dekker at the home of a Thai trader. No business was discussed then, but some months later Schafer says Dekker and Block asked him to help with some bird and monkey shipments from Guyana to Miami. That transaction didn't work out, but in late 1989 they again approached Schafer for his help in getting some baby orangutans from Singapore to Moscow.
In February 1990, inspectors at the Bangkok airport x-rayed three small wooden crates registered as the excess baggage of a German citizen named Kurt Schafer. The crates, labeled "live birds," were bound for Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and then Moscow. But cargo handlers heard humanlike cries coming from inside. Instead of birds, Thai authorities found six young orangutans and two siamang gibbons, both species of highly endangered apes. All appeared to have been drugged and shipped without food or water, in their own vomit and excrement.
The baby orangutans, packed three to a crate, were pulled out with swollen bellies, nearly dead. Schafer had already flown on to Belgrade, unaware the cargo wouldn't be waiting for him when he arrived. The Thai government confiscated the apes and local primate specialists agreed to nurse them back to health; three orangutans that had traveled upside down in one crate later died. The incident was widely publicized and became known to angry animal protectionists as the case of the "Bangkok Six." (The gibbons, not in as critical a condition, now are in a zoo in Indonesia.)
Fewer than 35,000 orangutans are left in their native habitat, the jungles of the islands of Borneo in Indonesia and Sumatra in Malaysia. Prized for their intelligence and orange-haired beauty, orangutans A particularly young ones A are in great demand by zoos and collectors and even, in some places, as pets and curiosities in nightclubs and circuses. A female orangutan can fetch as much as $50,000. Illegal trade thrives, according to conservation groups and wildlife authorities, even though export of any orangutan born in the wild is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international protocol. Capturing one infant orangutan, dependent on its mother for survival the first seven years of its life, almost always involves the killing of the mother. Experts estimate that at least ten wild-born orangutans die for every one that comes on the market. Animal conservationists call that genocide.
The Bangkok Six were captured on Borneo, probably sometime late in 1989. From Borneo, those knowledgeable about the case say the animals were likely sent by boat to Singapore, where they were packed in bird crates at Honey Pets Centre, a business owned by animal dealer James Lee. Schafer took over from there; he sat in the Singapore airport restaurant, conspicuously reading a newspaper as a signal for two men with the crates to approach him. He didn't know who the men were, but he did remember seeing one of them several months earlier at an animal dealer's compound in Jakarta.
The orangutans' ultimate destination was Moscow; the then-Soviet Union's state-operated animal importing company had been trying for months to acquire several of the affectionate, round-eyed creatures. An earlier attempt to fly the six orangutans directly from Singapore to Moscow had failed, whereupon Schafer contacted Victor Buljovic, director of the Belgrade Zoo, who agreed to help route the shipment through Yugoslavia in exchange for two gibbons.
The inspectors who pried the crates open in Bangkok knew none of this, however; nor did the reporters who wrote about the ugly find, or the international wildlife preservation organizations that quickly alerted their members. But authorities had little trouble tying the shipment to Schafer; he eventually paid a $1200 fine in Singapore and resumed his bird-dealing in Bangkok, for which he had a legal permit.
Then, says Schafer, German wildlife officials called him. They'd never had much interest in him before, but his involvement in the aborted Bangkok Six scheme caught their attention within 48 hours. "They said, 'Listen, if you start dealing with [endangered] monkeys, we're going to give you problems,'" Schafer recalls. "'You have to come tell us what happened.' I agreed secretly. I flew to Germany to meet with them a week or ten days later." Schafer's information implicated many of the players in the elaborate network, chiefly Block.
The Germans shared their information with Shirley McGreal, the outspoken chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, South Carolina. McGreal then badgered U.S. authorities to begin an investigation of Block. As part of that investigation, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents traveled to Germany to interview Schafer, and promised him limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.
In February 1992, two years after the smuggling plot was discovered, a Miami federal grand jury indicted Block on four counts of violating U.S. and international wildlife trafficking laws A two misdemeanors and two felonies. The other participants in the scheme Schafer had named, none U.S. citizens, were not named in the indictment. Block's trial was initially scheduled for July 6, then delayed to August 24.
Witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution stayed in Miami for several days after Hurricane Andrew while attorneys tried to figure out if a trial could take place before the witnesses had to return to their respective homes. But the courts, like the rest of posthurricane Miami, were barely functioning. Home the witnesses went, despite defense worries that bringing them back to Miami at some future date would be prohibitively expensive. U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe rescheduled the trial for the end of December.
Unknown to almost everyone, though, Matthew Block by the end of September had worked out a deal with federal prosecutors: he agreed to plead guilty to the two misdemeanor counts in the indictment and to cooperate fully with the government, including answering questions about other participants in the Indonesia-to-Moscow pipeline. Even though the deal was exceptionally sweet for Block, prosecutors thought the government also would benefit from his worldwide connections in a notoriously stealthy business. And both sides agreed that the possible penalties, under federal sentencing guidelines, wouldn't be much different whether Block pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or to felonies.
Prosecutors now say they cloaked the plea agreement in secrecy so that Block's new ties to the government would not become known to any prospective smuggler who might want to contact him about an illegal deal.
Block is the owner of Worldwide Primates in Miami, one of the largest animal-import businesses in the world. According to estimates by the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), which monitors wildlife transactions, Block's company imports about fifteen percent of all the monkeys used in the U.S. for scientific research. "Totally legal," stressed Miami attorney Jon Sale during a December court hearing at which he represented Block. "Controversial, similar to the abortion issue. There are a lot of people who will protest. They are saying this is animal cruelty...but he has a right to be in this business, and that is not a crime."
Over the years, Block has had some run-ins with law enforcement authorities, but he's never been prosecuted. In 1986 officials in Bolivia seized his passport in connection with the shipment of 361 monkeys from La Paz to Miami. He was filling an order from the U.S. Agency for International Development for several hundred monkeys to be used in research to develop a vaccine for malaria. Eventually Block was able to escape prosecution in Bolivia when U.S. officials issued him an identification document that allowed him to leave the country.
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.
Then for a while the public uproar died down. Kehoe had agreed to give the defense plenty of time to prepare for a trial. A federal grand jury convened to study information regarding the Bangkok Six case that Block had passed on to prosecutors as part of their September plea agreement. Block, who with his wife and two small children was still suffering posthurricane displacement, had also received a note threatening his life, which Metro-Dade police investigated. But Block probably didn't have much time to worry about such matters. Immediately following Judge Kehoe's rejection of his plea, he became very busy as an undercover informant for the federal government. In the next month and a half, he played the pivotal role -- acting in tandem with the senior resident agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Miami, Jorge Enrique Pic centsn -- in two major busts.
First was the Clement Solano sting. In mid-December, Block and Pic centsn traveled up to Elkton, just west of St. Augustine, to meet with Solano, a cordial bird dealer and breeder with an aviary in a big green barn. Block and Pic centsn claim Solano called Block, looking to find a buyer for several pairs of rare cockatoos that had recently hatched from eggs allegedly smuggled from Australia, a country that bans virtually all wildlife exports. Solano's lawyer, Richard Nichols of Jacksonville, maintains that Block or someone working with him contacted Solano looking for birds, not the other way around, and that Solano had readily offered them, believing his merchandise was legal.
Either way, Solano and Block wound up handcuffed together in Solano's kitchen. As the purported buyers of the cockatoos, Block and Pic centsn visited Solano a second time on December 22 and had accompanied him to his home near the aviary, where they discussed prices at the kitchen table. Solano was offering ten birds for almost $85,000. He didn't get his money. Pic centsn cut off discussion by pulling out a badge and announcing he was arresting both Solano and Block. Several hours later, says Solano's lawyer, the bird dealer was aghast to learn Block's "arrest" was a sham. Solano faces trial in June for violating U.S. and Australian laws against wildlife trafficking. In addition, Fish and Wildlife agents seized 23 exotic birds from Solano's property.
Two weeks later Block says he got another call, this time from Mexico. Eduardo Berges, a primate importer, allegedly advised Block that the director of zoos and parks for the state of Mexico was looking for a gorilla. The gorilla at the large Zacongo Zoo in the city of Toluca, had died and officials were anxious to replace the endangered animal. Did Block know of an available gorilla? Block, already tape-recording the conversation, thought he could find one. The next day he called back Berges to say he'd located a gorilla and several baby orangutans to boot. For the next few weeks events as outlined in a later criminal complaint unfolded much like a third-rate detective story.
Trade in gorillas, as it is in orangutans, chimpanzees, and other endangered primates, is banned by U.S. and international laws in all but exceptional cases. Those cases usually involve strictly monitored cooperative breeding programs among zoos. "Professionally operated zoos working with endangered species have a system of stud books and international inventory systems and species coordinators," explains Dan Wharton, a curator at New York's International Wildlife Conservation Park, commonly known as the Bronx Zoo. "So we have several layers of understanding of every single animal of a species and where they are. A smuggled animal would stick out like a sore thumb." Wharton is species coordinator for the gorilla breeding programs approved by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), which accredits zoos in the Western Hemisphere. The Zacongo Zoo is neither accredited by the AAZPA nor a participant in any AAZPA-sanctioned breeding plan. That doesn't necessarily mean the Zacongo Zoo is substandard, or that it would have been impossible for the zoo to import a gorilla legally, Wharton and other wildlife experts say, but it would certainly make it more difficult.
Victor Bernal, the Mexican state zoos and parks director who was looking for a gorilla, says he is well versed in the intricate system of inventories described by Wharton, and he believed he was working within it. A tall man with conservatively cut gray hair, Bernal is a member of several zoological and conservation associations, and the Zacongo Zoo is a legitimate park, affiliated with the Association of Latin American Zoological Parks and Aquariums, of which Bernal is president, according to his Miami attorney, Donald Bierman.
On January 12, Bernal, Eduardo Berges, and Berges's business partner, Jose Luis Alcerreca, flew to Miami from Mexico City to meet with Block. Fish and Wildlife agent Jorge Enrique Pic centsn made another appearance, this time posing as the owner of several primates that had been bestowed on him "in payment of a prior debt," according to court documents. Pic centsn assured Bernal he had the perfect gorilla for him and more.
The next day Block and Pic centsn took the three Mexicans to Parrot Jungle to inspect several orangutans and a chimpanzee. The expedition was prearranged with long-time Block associate Bern Levine, an animal breeder and part-owner of Parrot Jungle, where he keeps a baby chimp and a few infant orangutans. That same evening Metrozoo's head curator, Bill Zeigler, met Block, Pic centsn, and the Mexicans at the front gate after the zoo had officially closed for the day.
Zeigler, happy to do his part in thwarting potential smugglers but not eager to get involved in legal intrigues, says he left immediately after escorting the group to a holding area. There Moja, the zoo's nine-year-old, captive-born male gorilla, did indeed appear to be the perfect find for Bernal. Pic centsn states in court papers that he explained to the Mexicans he was bribing a zoo employee to house and feed the gorilla and that he wanted to sell it as soon as possible. Victor Bernal decided he wanted the gorilla and a baby orangutan.
Bernal disputes nearly every element in the government's story. He won't discuss his case with the news media on advice from his attorney, but he did grant an interview in late February to a representative of the Animal Welfare Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that has been active in monitoring Block's case. Bernal told the foundation representative that he had repeatedly inquired about the necessary CITES permits, which take months to obtain. But he said he believed his hosts when they insisted they were in the process of getting those permits, and that the animals would have to be killed for lack of space if he couldn't take them immediately. The price for both primates was $92,500, to be transferred from a Mexican exchange house to Block's bank account.
Once the transaction had been settled, the Mexicans, according to the government's criminal complaint, turned to the elaborate task of bribing Mexican Customs officials to allow the animals into the country. Bernal, the complaint says, was even ordered back to Mexico by the state governor to bribe authorities at the Toluca airport. Bernal's attorney, Donald Bierman, calls this part of the government's account "one of the most stupid proposals in this whole thing."
Finally, on January 25, Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca accompanied Block and Pic centsn to the Opa-locka Airport, where the gorilla was being loaded onto a "chartered" plane. Pic centsn had arranged to borrow an old Customs Service DC-3, piloted by an undercover Fish and Wildlife agent, to fly the gorilla to Toluca. The orangutan was to be shipped on a later flight. Everything was going smoothly until Moja the gorilla stood up, opened the door to his cage, and stepped out into the plane, heading straight for a dumbstruck Bernal.
Pic centsn isn't saying which of his agents got the assignment to don a gorilla suit and sit in a cage that included a few scoops of gorilla dung thrown in for authenticity. But the act was a success: Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca were arrested at the airport. Agents then stopped at the Hilton Hotel near Miami International Airport to pick up two other state employees of Mexico who had helped with the deal. The next day the funny story about the agent in a gorilla suit made news everywhere. Jay Leno wanted him on the Tonight Show.
Bernal and the other four were not amused. "I never knew Mr. Block before," says an embittered Bernal, "but he deceived me and lied to me." Attorney Bierman adds, "Block turned a simple inquiry into a big case by telling lies and setting people up." International politics also played rough with the five Mexicans. One condition of their release from jail on bond was written assurance from the federal government of Mexico that it would ensure the return of its citizens to the U.S. for trial if they fled to Mexico. The timing of such a request was unfortunate, coming as it did only seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court infuriated the Mexican government by upholding the controversial 1989 kidnapping of a Mexican doctor by U.S. drug agents. Mexican officials refused the bond request, and the five Mexicans remained in jail in Miami for ten days, until U.S. Magistrate Linnea Johnson agreed to a modified release arrangement. Four of the Mexicans charged in the gorilla caper have since been allowed to return to Mexico to await their May 17 trial. Victor Bernal, however, is still here. Today he is staying in a suite at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. As a condition of his bond, he reports by phone every day to U.S. Pretrial Services or to his attorney's office.
On January 27, the same day as the Mexicans' bond hearing before Magistrate Johnson, a federal grand jury handed up a new indictment in the Bangkok Six case, an indictment that would replace the original four-count charge against Block. The new indictment, which named Kurt Schafer as an unindicted co-conspirator, charged Block and three others with one count of conspiring to violate U.S. and international endangered-species laws. Matthew Block had purposefully implicated himself in a felony.
Arraigned before Magistrate Johnson the day of the indictment, Block by coincidence found himself in the same courtroom with the five Mexican citizens who had wired $92,500 to his bank account two days earlier. (Prosecutors won't say what they did with the money after the arrests.)
Along with the dramatic new indictment came a new agreement: Block would plead guilty to the one felony conspiracy charge, and expect his vigorous cooperation with the government to help mitigate his sentence. Pleading guilty to a felony results in the loss of the right to vote and to carry a gun, although those rights can be reinstated. It could also mean revocation of Block's animal import license. But the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides each case individually, according to agent Pic centsn, and a felony doesn't automatically mean the loss of a license.
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.
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.