Lock a Block

During the past five years, Miami animal dealer Matthew Block has been hailed as a hero and excoriated as a villain; he has played the role of outlaw and law enforcer. Now Block may be closer than ever to assuming another identity: that of a federal prisoner. Barring, of course, another of the many twists and surprises that have marked Block's involvement in what has become known as the Bangkok Six affair, one of the world's most notorious wildlife-smuggling cases.

Controversy, intrigue, and tragedy have visited the reclusive 33-year-old animal dealer almost since the day in February 1990 when six critically ill baby orangutans were discovered stuffed in a crate at the international airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The shipment was the product of an elaborate multinational arrangement to illegally transport the endangered apes from their Indonesian jungle habitat to a Moscow zoo. Three of the orangutans eventually died. (This case and other Block-related incidents have been chronicled in several New Times stories dating back to 1991.)

Last month a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a thirteen-month prison sentence imposed on Block two years ago after he pleaded guilty to participating in the smuggling scheme. Block, who has been free on bond while appealing the sentence, might still be able to avoid surrendering to U.S. marshals later this month. His attorney, William Osterhoudt, intends to ask the Eleventh Circuit for a rehearing. If that petition is denied, Osterhoudt could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. "It's not over yet," vows Block.

Worldwide Primates, Inc., which Block founded in 1980 while still a teenager, used to be one of the world's largest animal import-export businesses. Because of Block's legal problems, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year declined to renew the company's import-export license. Block has since sold the firm's facilities to a California primate importer, and Worldwide Primates now is in the business of breeding monkeys domestically for sale to research laboratories. (In a matter unrelated to his criminal case, Block last year agreed to pay a $16,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Department of Agriculture after correcting several unsanitary and hazardous conditions noted during agency inspections of two of his animal holding compounds.)

"Block couldn't import a rat right now," asserts Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, who prosecuted the Bangkok Six case. "There's really not much he can do now to avoid going to prison." Regardless of what legal option Block exercises, Lewis promises, the government will continue to press ahead in the judicial process. He expects the appellate court to issue a mandate by July 16, whereupon Lewis will ask the district court in Miami to require that Block surrender to authorities and be transported to prison.

It may seem unusual to appeal a sentence after accepting a plea bargain, a tactic that's intended to minimize prison time. But hardly anything has gone as planned throughout this convoluted case. Block was indicted by a grand jury in Miami in early 1992, after persistent lobbying by animal-conservation groups and with the help of a participant in the smuggling plot who later cooperated with wildlife agents. The indictment charged Block with two misdemeanors and two felonies -- four violations of U.S. and international laws governing animal trade. Although other non-U.S. citizens were known to have been involved in the scheme, no one else was indicted. A trial scheduled for August 1992 was knocked off the docket by Hurricane Andrew.

Soon afterward Block began negotiating with federal prosecutors. He consented to "cooperate fully" with the government in exchange for pleading guilty to the two misdemeanors. The agreement remained secret for several weeks, during which time Block began participating in two undercover operations based on information he conveyed to wildlife agents. In one case, a Jacksonville bird dealer eventually pleaded guilty to illegal possession of rare Australian cockatoos; the other case, which received international attention when five Mexican citizens were charged with attempting to smuggle a gorilla from Miami to Mexico in January 1993, resulted in the convictions of two defendants last year.

Word of Block's plea bargain emerged in late 1992, when both sides were scheduled to present their agreement for the approval of U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe. The animal-protection groups that had worked so hard to publicize the case and Block's role in it were furious, predicting the animal dealer would escape with probation and a fine. Kehoe's chambers received hundreds of letters urging him to reject the plea, which he did in December 1992.

Then the grand jury issued a superseding indictment, based partly on information provided by Block, naming him and three other participants in the Bangkok Six plot. (None of the three are U.S. citizens; none have been apprehended.) The new indictment charged Block and the others with one felony count of conspiracy, which took precedence over the previous charges. Block agreed to plead guilty to that one felony, and in February 1993 Kehoe accepted his plea and scheduled sentencing for April. At about that same time, Block had second thoughts about pleading guilty to a felony and hired a new defense lawyer, the outspoken and controversial Michael Metzger of Marin County, California. Asserting that Block had been poorly advised in the plea bargain, Metzger unsuccessfully attempted to remedy the situation by filing motions, including one to reinstate the first plea bargain and another for Kehoe to recuse himself from the case.

A government informant usually expects prosecutors to file a motion with the court recounting the informant's cooperation and asking the judge for leniency, and Block was no exception; his plea agreement states that the government will make the motion "if...the circumstances of the defendant's cooperation warrant...." But at Block's sentencing, prosecutor Guy Lewis told Judge Kehoe he wasn't going to file the motion, alleging that Block had altered case documents and had been planning an illegal deal with one of his Bangkok Six co-conspirators even while cooperating with the government. Though Block denied Lewis's allegations, the judge was obligated to follow strict sentencing guidelines and ordered Block to serve thirteen months in prison and to pay a $30,000 fine. Declaring his client to have been a "super-snitch" duped by untrustworthy prosecutors, an indignant Metzger launched a campaign against the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, taking out ads in legal publications decrying the government's treatment of the animal trader.

Almost a year after the sentencing, as briefs were being filed on both sides in the appeal, Metzger committed suicide. Several months later, his friend and colleague Osterhoudt agreed to take on the case.

Animal rights activists, many of whom have said they won't be satisfied until Block is run out of the animal-import business entirely, are rejoicing cautiously over the appellate court's affirmation. Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the South Carolina-based International Primate Protection League and chief among Block's accusers since the outset of the case, still complains that the government has been sluggish and halfhearted in its prosecution of one of the world's most prominent animal dealers. But she'll be somewhat mollified if Block does indeed spend time in prison, she says. "I don't particularly take any pleasure in a human being losing his freedom," McGreal comments. "But I also think it is a very educational experience, and I think it's important that Matthew Block go to jail to repay his debt to society.

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Kathy Glasgow
Contact: Kathy Glasgow