Texas man accused of smuggling rhino horns

rhino1A man from Hico is among people around the U.S. who face charges of trafficking in endangered rhinoceros horns.

Wade Steffen, 32, was being held Monday at a federal holding facility in Waco, where he was waiting to be moved to Los Angeles to face charges resulting from “Operation Crash.”

This multi-agency undercover investigation targets alleged traffickers in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horn.

Poaching of African rhinos accelerated in recent years with false rumors out of China and Vietnam that the horns can be used to cure cancer, said Special Agent Mike Merida of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Fort Worth.

Merida confirmed that Steffen had competed in rodeos and that he was first stopped Feb. 9 in California.

Officials said the undercover operation was forced into the open when Steffen, his wife and mother were found with $337,000 in their luggage at a Long Beach airport.

Merida said Steffen was allowed to continue back to Texas where he was arrested Feb. 18 at his home in Hico. The arrest warrant, Merida added, was issued by federal court officials in California.

During their investigation, wildlife officials said they intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from the Steffen family and the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in live and stuffed exotic animals, according to court records.

Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) participated in the investigation.

In additional searches conducted by FWS and ICE, agents found rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches.  Approximately $1 million in cash was seized and another $1 million seized in gold ingots.

Steffen’s wife and mother weren’t arrested, but Merida said the investigation was continuing.

 Other suspects, however, were arrested in New York, Newark and Los Angeles.

“The rhino is an animal of prehistoric origin that is facing possible extinction because of an illegal trade for its horns on the black market that is driven by greed,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.  “The rhino is protected under both U.S. and international law, and we are taking aggressive action to protect the rhino by investigating and vigorously prosecuting those who are engaged in this brutal trade.”

 If convicted, maximum penalties under these charges are up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy; five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for Lacey Act violations; and up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violations of the Endangered Species Act.

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