David Sneddon’s trouble with federal agents started at a booth where he was selling pythons, red-tailed boas and rattlesnakes at Repticon, a reptile trade show in South Carolina.
A customer inspecting his Mojave sidewinders took Sneddon’s phone number. Sneddon had no idea the man was an undercover informant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the next 18 months, federal agents surreptitiously recorded all of the informant’s phone conversations with Sneddon and intercepted all of their texts as they arranged purchases of albino snakes, scorpions, lizards and other creatures.
Sneddon, 44, a truck driver who lives in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, pleaded guilty in October to felony wildlife trafficking, admitting he made illegal shipments of African bush vipers and other exotic snakes from California to the informant in Atlanta.
Prosecutors sought a four-month prison term, but on Monday U.S. District Judge Mark C. Scarsi instead sentenced Sneddon to five months of home detention.
“I’m happy with it,” Sneddon said afterwards.
Wildlife trafficking is booming worldwide. Interpol, the global police network, ranks it as one of the most lucrative rackets of international crime syndicates, generating billions of dollars a year from the slaughter of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other wildlife for ivory and other illicit goods. It threatens the extinction of a variety of species.
In the United States, prosecutors have targeted smugglers of lion skulls, shark fins and rare songbirds in recent years.
Jose Manuel Perez, an Oxnard man who has called himself the Pablo Escobar of wildlife crimes, admitted last year in Los Angeles federal court that he smuggled 1,700 animals — including baby crocodiles and four-eyed turtles — from Mexico into the United States, prosecutors say.
When Perez drove across the border late one night, customs officers found 60 alligator lizards and dwarf boas hidden in the clothing he was wearing; three of the reptiles were dead.
Sneddon’s operation was smaller and strictly domestic, according to court filings. His case illuminates how the world of routine reptile trading among Americans who run pet shops or collect snakes as a hobby sometimes overlaps with the criminal wildlife trade.
Sneddon, who calls his business the West Coast Reptile Exchange, is a lifelong snake enthusiast who grew up in central Florida. His passion was sparked by his capture of a grass snake when he was 4 years old.
“I love reptiles,” he said in an interview before the sentencing. “I love everything about them.”
His favorites are speckled rattlesnakes, because of their varying patterns and colors — black, white, blue, pink, purple.
One of the native California reptiles he admitted selling illegally to the informant was a blue speckled rattlesnake. State law restricts possession of the speckled rattlesnake, as well as the Uganda puff adders, the Western diamondback and other snakes Sneddon sold, according to federal prosecutors. Puff adders are one of Africa’s deadliest snakes.
It’s a violation of the federal Lacey Act to ship wildlife across state lines if its possession is unlawful under any state law.
Sneddon has been trading reptiles for decades, and he’s familiar with some of the state laws on snake sales. South Carolina, for example, is extremely permissive compared to California, he said.
“You could walk into a pet shop and buy a 12-foot king cobra” in South Carolina, Sneddon said.
In a secretly recorded phone call with the informant in August 2020, Sneddon said he could not sell him a red diamond rattlesnake because it was “endangered and protected in California” and thus barred under the Lacey Act.
“We get caught shipping that, it’s prison time for both of us,” he told the informant, according to charging papers filed in court by Tracey G. Woodruff, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led the investigation of Sneddon.
Repticon, a roving reptile trade show that draws thousands of customers most weekends in cities around the country, attracts hundreds of homespun vendors who do business under such names as Gecko Junkie, Slithermania and Snakes for the Memories. It’s a tight-knit community.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Sneddon said in the interview. “Everybody pretty much knows who’s breeding what, who’s keeping what, who’s selling what, who’s working on what breeding projects, or who’s importing or exporting, who’s got connections in Egypt, who’s got connections in Africa, who’s got connections in China.”
Sneddon’s first encounter with the informant took place on July Fourth weekend in 2020 at a Repticon show in Columbia, S.C. The informant was an expert in venomous reptiles who was established in the trade and had no criminal history, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sneddon told the informant that he typically sold 25 to 35 reptiles at a time and shipped them in crates from the Delta Airlines cargo terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, Woodruff’s complaint alleged. Sneddon falsely labeled the crates to dodge law enforcement, Woodruff wrote, and he maintained a nationwide network of buyers “for his illegally taken reptiles.”
Sneddon charged the informant $2,745 for his first shipment of snakes, scorpions, lizards and geckos. Woodruff, using a phony name and address, sent Sneddon the money on Venmo and picked up the shipment in Atlanta.
Sneddon told the informant he was hunting for more reptiles that summer in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Woodruff said, and went on to make five more shipments of similar size.
One of them included ebony tarantulas and hairy scorpions. Another included a $1,500 gila monster, a venomous orange-striped lizard, according to Woodruff.
Under his plea deal, Sneddon admitted to making just the first shipment.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles declined to discuss details of Sneddon’s case. But in general, they say unlawful reptile sales endanger rare species, spike demand on the black market and endanger cargo handlers who don’t realize they are handling venomous snakes.
Mark Williams, chief of the environmental crimes unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said reptiles are often shipped in boxes without food or air by people whose hobby turns out to have an evil downside.
“I think it starts out in a good place,” he said. “It starts out with liking lizards, and it turns into trafficking, and then by the hundreds or thousands.”
In the end, he said, the seller’s goal is profit. “They end up doing it for the money,” Williams said. “They’re literally taking animals out of the wild, and selling them for money, and just decimating wild populations of these animals.”
For his part, Sneddon hopes home detention won’t get in the way of his plan to attend a Repticon show next month in Costa Mesa.
He and his nephew plan to sell boas, colubrids and pythons, along with spiders and tarantulas. Legally.