A pair of Florida rattlesnake rustlers are headed to federal prison for illegally smuggling snakes, prosecutors said Monday - and yes, some of them were on a plane.
Robert Keszey, a star of the erstwhile Discovery Channel show Swamp Brothers, was sentenced Friday to a year behind bars for trafficking in protected snakes captured in the wilds of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. His business partner, Robroy MacInnes, received 18 months in prison at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez.
The men co-owned Glades Herp Farm, a five-acre Tampa ranch that doubled as home base to one of the largest mail-order reptile retailers in the United States. It was there that Keszey based his cable show.
But even as they held themselves out as conservationists, prosecutors said, Keszey, 48, and MacInnes, 55, arranged for the capture and shipment of dozens of endangered snakes, hoping to sell them domestically and abroad.
At the men's trial last year, witnesses detailed a 2008 sale involving 20 Eastern Timber rattlers they hoped to sell in Germany - a market where buyers, in the words of one witness, "go nuts" for North American species and pay up to $800 for a single snake.
Keszey and MacInnes later sent a pair of nonvenomous Eastern Indigo snakes from Florida to a contact in Sellersville for domestic sale. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents estimate that the species can fetch as much as $1,000 a piece at reptile shows such as the annual one in Hammond, Pa.
The Timber, a species of venomous pit viper native to the Eastern seaboard, is a federally protected species. The Indigo, the longest native North American snake species, is listed as threatened under federal law.
Despite their convictions, Keszey and MacInnes maintain their innocence, saying they fell victim to a onetime business associate turned government witness named Loren Zuck, whom they describe as - well, a snake.
Zuck worked as Glades Herp Farm's representative at snake sales such as the Hammond show and was never charged in the case.
But when federal agents turned their attention toward the business, a panicked Zuck took two adult Timber snakes he had on hand and froze them to death. He flushed several baby snakes down the toilet, lawyers for the farm's co-owners alleged in recent court filings.
"This case . . . does not involve the injury, killing or inhumane treatment of a single animal on . . . anyone's part," wrote Keszey's lawyer Felicia Sarner, "except for the government's principal witness, Loren Zuck, who callously killed numerous snakes to save himself."
Zuck did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Prosecutors say MacInnes did his best to make sure Zuck kept his mouth shut.
In a conversation between the men that was quoted in court filings, MacInnes urged Zuck to lie to authorities about their snake dealing. And even if Zuck were to be charged, MacInnes said at the time, he was unlikely to face a hefty sentence. "It's just snakes," MacInnes is quoted saying. "The judge, who deals with rapists and murders and stuff - the judge is going to say, 'F- snakes. I mean, what are we talking about here?' "
MacInnes' own stint before Sanchez on Friday may have changed his mind.
In addition to their prison terms, Sanchez also ordered MacInnes to pay a $4,000 fine and Keszey to pay $2,000.