Loren Varga loves tigers.
He loves them so much, he coveted the pelt of a dead one to decorate the floor of his home.
And on Wednesday, that years-long fixation landed the 61-year-old New Jersey man behind bars for six hours.
A federal judge sentenced Varga — a world traveler, antiques collector, and radiological technician at Merck and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital — to one day in prison and two years’ probation. It was the culmination of an embarrassing year that saw him caught in a sting operation trying to illegally purchase a $6,800 tiger-skin rug and then pleading guilty to his crimes.
Standing before U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in a Philadelphia courtroom, he swore lifelong adoration for the endangered wild cats. And while he told friends he wasn’t aware he was doing anything illegal at the time, he acknowledged in court that he now knows buying tiger pelts is a crime.
But prosecutors balked at his claims of ignorance and his show of contrition. Varga had been caught, but not prosecuted, in a similar sting operation 17 years earlier. And when U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents showed up at his house in Franklin Park, Somerset County, in June, he handed them a tiger-skin purse he had acquired on eBay at some point since then.
“To hear him talk about this love of tigers is truly appalling,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Beam Winter said. “This is a man who did something really wrong to a terribly depleted natural beauty that is one day going to be gone because of people like him.”
In the end, Brody cut Varga a break. Federal sentencing guidelines called for him to be imprisoned for up to six months. But by the time he was hauled from the courtroom by U.S. marshals on Tuesday, he faced only hours in a cell before the courthouse’s closing time and his anticipated release.
The judge said her main concern was deterring poachers and purchasers like Varga.
The population of wild tigers has been decimated over the last century by poaching and habitat destruction. In 2015, conservationists estimated the global wild tiger population had plummeted to less than 4,000 from about 100,000 at the start of the 20th century.
Despite conservationists’ efforts to protect them, a thriving global black market for parts of the tigers persists.
In China, tiger bone wine — made from the creature’s crushed bones, left to macerate for years in rice liqueur — is a status symbol. Tiger pelts, sold as decorative rugs, sell for thousands of dollars on closely guarded private Facebook groups and auction sites in the United States. Federal prosecutions of people seeking to buy or sell tiger parts in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act are rare, but do take place.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents in Philadelphia discovered Varga earlier this year as he contacted dealers over the internet from his email account at Merck. One dealer warned him that buying and selling tiger skins was illegal.
“I’m still interested,” Varga responded, according to court filings.
When an undercover agent this spring offered to sell Varga the hide of a tiger killed in 1985 — a dozen years after the animals were placed on the Endangered Species List — he agreed to drive to Pennsylvania to make the purchase.
In court Tuesday, Varga’s attorney, Kevin A. Buchan, described Varga as a fundamentally decent man who let his passions for exotic locales and rare antiques get the better of his judgment.
He worked days at Merck and nights and weekends at the hospital to fund his passions and the elaborate decorations in a room of his house, which he referred to as “the safari room,” friends wrote in letters to the court. And it was there that his illegally obtained tiger-skin rug was to have pride of place.
Buchan pointed to Varga’s actions during the sting operation as what he described as proof of his intrinsic honesty. As he arrived to pay undercover agents the agreed-upon $6,800 sum, he realized he was $50 short.
The agent, court records show, told him not to worry about it. But Varga returned moments after his illegal transaction to pay the $50.
“I’ve never heard of anyone who’s committing a crime who realizes he’s shorted his victim $50 and turns around and goes back to pay it,” Buchan said.
Unconvinced, Winter shot back: “[He] also told the agents, ‘You know what, use my sister’s name on the receipt.’”