Gorilla Warfare: Part 2
On April 15 and 16, Matthew Block sat almost invisible at the burnished mahogany defense table in U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe's dim courtroom in Miami. A slight man in wire-rimmed glasses and a dark suit, surrounded by the dark suits of his lawyers, Block sounded younger than his 31 years when he stood up toward the end of his unusual two-day sentencing hearing to address the judge. "The only thing I can say is I regret getting involved in this," he declared, his self-assured tone contrasting with the youthful reediness of his voice and his contrite words. "I've always been a law-abiding citizen, and I certainly don't intend to be involved in anything like this again."
Whereupon Kehoe sentenced Block, an internationally prominent animal importer, to thirteen months in prison and fined him $30,000 for his role in one of the most notorious animal-smuggling cases in history. Several representatives of animal-advocate groups in attendance welcomed the penalty, even though they had hoped for one much harsher. For the animal protectionists, sworn enemies of the animal trader, this was fulfillment of at least one of their long-term goals: to see the mighty Block caged like the rows of monkeys at his quarantine compound near Miami International Airport.
But as with most everything that has unfolded in this complicated case, even the resolution is not what it seems. Block is not in prison yet, and it will be a long time before he is, if he is, thanks to only the latest in a series of tortuous legal turns. In ironic fact, Block might be locked up right now if his government prosecutors had not decided at the last minute to come down harder on him than expected. Just why the government made the moves that seem to have backfired is open to interpretation.
Block is free on bond and continuing to operate his business, Worldwide Primates Inc., while his case is being appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. If the court agrees to hear Block's appeal, it probably will not render a decision for another year. In the meantime, the intrigue continues, more than three years after the world first learned of the case now known as the "Bangkok Six" affair.
In February 1990, inspectors at the Bangkok, Thailand, airport discovered six baby orangutans and two siamang gibbons packed in three small crates marked "Live Birds" that had arrived from Singapore, bound for Moscow. All of the animals A both endangered species whose sale is highly restricted A were in horrible condition; three of the orangutans later died. The illegal shipment was soon traced to Kurt Schafer, a Bangkok bird dealer. He paid a fine in Singapore and then, in exchange for immunity from the U.S. government, implicated Block in the scheme, along with others. A federal grand jury indicted Block in February 1992 on two misdemeanor charges and two felony charges of violating U.S. and international endangered-species laws.
After his scheduled August 24, 1992 trial was blown away by Hurricane Andrew, Block agreed to plead guilty to the two misdemeanors and name other Bangkok Six participants in exchange for the government's dropping the two felony counts. Animal conservation groups were outraged; hundreds of letters flooded Kehoe's chambers and demonstrators outside the courthouse urged the judge to reject the plea agreement. In December Kehoe did just that.
Block then redoubled his cooperation efforts, going undercover to help bust six people in two different endangered species sting operations. After Block testified before a federal grand jury in January, three more men were indicted in the Bangkok Six case. Block agreed then to plead guilty to the single felony count in the new indictment: conspiring to violate U.S. and international endangered species laws.
This agreement, too, had to be approved by Kehoe, but Block's lawyers were confident the judge would not only approve the plan but take into consideration at sentencing recommendations for leniency from the beneficiaries of Block's cooperation: government prosecutors. A felony plea meant the possibility of a tougher sentence for Block A up to five years in prison. But during plea negotiations the prosecutors assured Block his cooperation would be taken into account and ultimately give him "the opportunity for probation," at least according to Block's long-time civil lawyer, Paul Bass, a party to the negotiations.
The written agreement between Block and the government was less specific, but it did note the government would file a 5K1 motion that would allow the judge to impose a sentence below what would be required by the federal sentencing rules.
Without a 5K1 motion, the judge is strictly bound by the federal sentencing guidelines applicable in the case, regardless of whether the judge thinks the sentence is appropriate. As for promises of possible probation made to Block during plea negotiations, prosecutor Guy Lewis doesn't agree with Bass's version of events. "[Bass] may have told [Block] that. Certainly when anybody files a 5K1 motion, the possibility for probation exists."
Kehoe accepted the new plea-bargain on February 9 and set sentencing for April 15.
Then, Block says, he began to feel uneasy. He began to get the idea that prosecutor Guy Lewis was no longer willing to give as much weight to his cooperation, that it was more important to the government to show the world it was tough on wildlife smugglers.
And Lewis was indeed beginning to have reservations about the extent of Block's cooperation, he later explained in court documents. He was getting reports from authorities in the Netherlands that Block had been speaking "in code" to alleged Dutch animal smuggler Kenny Dekker, a former partner of Schafer and one of the three indicted in January, in addition to Block, in the Bangkok Six case. Lewis also suspected Block had altered a document faxed to Schafer in November 1989 pertaining to the shipment of the six orangutans.
In mid-March Block went to a criminal defense lawyer he had known for several years, Michael Metzger of Tiburon, California. Metzger took over the case from the local firm Sonnet Sale and Kuehne, and he immediately filed motions asking Kehoe to allow Block to withdraw his guilty plea to the felony charge and to reinstate the old misdemeanor plea-bargain; or, if the judge rejected those options, Metzger requested that the case be brought to trial. Kehoe denied the motions.
Meanwhile, Lewis had sent the document he suspected Block of altering to a laboratory in Washington, D.C. The forensic expert at the lab agreed with Lewis. With Block's recent lawyer switch, the government suspected their former prize informant wasn't telling them everything; Block insists he never indicated to any of his government contacts he intended to change his relationship with them. By April 13, two days before sentencing, with a 5K1 motion still absent from Kehoe's chambers, Metzger filed a motion to compel the government to submit the letter.
At the sentencing Kehoe did allow Metzger to challenge the government's reasons for not submitting the paperwork Block had been counting on. "The government's integrity is on the line here," Kehoe admonished Guy Lewis. "You made a deal with the man."
Lewis had wanted to delay sentencing until after the trials (scheduled for May and June) of the people Block had helped "sting" and at which he would be expected to testify. But Kehoe denied Lewis's request for a delay, and Lewis cited concerns about Block's continuing cooperation as one reason for not filing a 5K1 motion. Metzger argued that Block intended to testify at the upcoming trials, and that a desire to ensure continuing cooperation didn't amount to a reason to discount past cooperation. Jorge Enrique Pic centsn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service senior resident agent in Miami, testified he believed Block knew but hadn't told the government the names of all the Bangkok Six participants. "Mr. Block is a world-renowned animal dealer," Pic centsn said, "and the wealth of information he has on the illegal animal trade is just unbelievable." Pic centsn added he "had the feeling" Block had not told them the full truth about his contacts with alleged smuggler Kenny Dekker.
Metzger, a lionlike man with a silver-streaked beard and a growling voice, derided Pic centsn's "gut feelings," pointing out that the government had encouraged Block to contact Dekker to try to lure him to the U.S., where, ostensibly, authorities could get their hands on him more easily. (With interesting timing, Dutch authorities themselves arrested Dekker on Monday, April 19, after a long investigation and just three days after Block's sentencing. Lewis had no comment regarding whether Dekker would be extradited to the U.S.) Two versions of the allegedly altered document Lewis had complained about became the center of a duel of forensic experts, each of whom claimed the other was vouching for a forgery.
Kehoe made no determination regarding the disputed points, but he did appear to agree with both Lewis and Metzger that previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions indicated the government could negate a plea agreement unless its decision was judged to stem from racial or ethnic discrimination or to be "irrational." Kehoe didn't think discrimination was involved, but he couldn't figure out how legal precedent would define "irrational." "What is the standard the court must apply in determining irrational conduct?" the ruddy-faced, jowly judge questioned both lawyers. "What if I just don't agree with [the government's reasoning]?"
Lewis insisted he had acted A or refused to act A in good faith. "I know what's riding on this A not only the reputation of the government but in many instances my own," he told Kehoe. "But in my own judgment, I can't file the 5K1 because I have reservations...about the fullness of his cooperation." Finally the judge made a reluctant decision: "It is the judgment of the court that the action of the government was not irrational and therefore the motion to make the government submit the 5K1 motion is denied," Kehoe said. He added pointedly: "Then we'll get a chance to get the Eleventh Circuit to say what's irrational."
Metzger jumped onto the end of Kehoe's sentence with, "You can bet on it!"
Many regarded the sentence Kehoe imposed as a rebuke to the government or an endorsement of Metzger's stance; thirteen months is at the low end of the guidelines, which had been set at between twelve and eighteen months. Endorsement or not, Metzger, a brash former federal prosecutor, began from that moment a spirited flow of denunciations of the government's conduct. In an April 20 letter to U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, Metzger railed against the pressure the government puts on defendants to become "snitches," saying the current emphasis on plea-bargains will make the U.S. a "nation of informants much the same as prevailed under the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
"[My] client became a super-snitch," Metzger went on. "His cooperation was not limited to his own case. Despite this, your office broke two written promises to make a 5K1 motion. During the sentence proceedings I stated that I was going to tell every defense lawyer in our nation not to enter any plea agreement with your office. Your office cannot be trusted."
Last Friday Metzger filed motions asking Kehoe to make a written determination of the credibility of the government's arguments for not granting Block a 5K1 motion and to reconsider his ruling that the government was not acting irrationally. He gave notice to the Eleventh Circuit on last Monday that Block will appeal the government's refusal to grant a 5K1 motion and the length of his sentence, among other points.
Lewis, meanwhile, faces criticism from all sides. "I think in view of the amazingly weak presentation by both the prosecution and the wildlife agents, it's a miracle anything was accomplished," says Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, South Carolina, a group that was instrumental in getting the government to prosecute Block in the first place.
Block, Metzger, and their allies say the government's snub resulted from the considerable political pressure exerted by animal-rights groups, or possibly pressure from even higher up, such as a new presidential administration thought to be more attuned to ecological issues such as endangered-species preservation. "Rubbish," says Guy Lewis.
Block is not in prison yet, and it will be a long time before he is, if he is.
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.