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."