A Monterey Park man will plead guilty to a federal wildlife smuggling charge stemming from the seizure of a package that contained three highly venomous king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Rodrigo Franco, 34, is expected to enter his plea before a Los Angeles federal judge on a date to be determined.

According to a plea agreement filed Wednesday, Franco admitted smuggling another 20 or so king cobras, as well as sending protected turtles to Hong Kong. Prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence of no more than 18 months in exchange for the guilty plea, the document states.

In early March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspected a package sent from Hong Kong and discovered three live king cobra snakes — a protected and highly poisonous reptile — each of which was nearly 2 feet long.

In addition to the three snakes, the parcel being sent through the mail contained three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles.

On the same date, Franco also mailed six protected turtles — desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles and ornate box turtles — from the United States to Hong Kong, but that shipment also was intercepted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Because of the danger associated with the cobras, the snakes were seized from the package that had come from Hong Kong. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service made a controlled delivery of the soft-shelled turtles to Franco’s home. Immediately after the package was delivered, federal agents executed a search warrant at the residence.

While searching the home, agents found the package that originated in Hong Kong in a children’s bedroom, in which they also discovered a tank containing a live baby crocodile and tanks containing alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamond back terrapins — all of which are protected species, according to investigators.

During a subsequent interview with authorities, Franco admitted that he had previously received 20 king cobras in two prior shipments — but he said all of those snakes had died in transit, federal prosecutors said.

During the ensuing investigation, authorities obtained evidence from Franco’s phone, which contained messages in which he and someone in Asia allegedly discussed shipping turtles and snakes between the United States and Asia. The messages indicate that Franco had previously received live cobras from his contact in Asia and was going to give five of the snakes to a relative of his contact, according to prosecutors.

–City News Service

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