An Orange County man is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to his role in a scheme to smuggle endangered “good luck” songbirds into Los Angeles from Vietnam.
It’s the second day in a row cases have been heard in Los Angeles about smuggled Asian songbirds. On Monday, a federal court judge sentenced a different smuggler to home detention and time behind bars for trying to bring 93 wrapped birds into the U.S. Most of those birds died.
But that was a different case from the one being heard Tuesday.
In Tuesday’s case, one defendant, Sony Dong, 55, has already admitted in his plea deal that for several years, he helped provide financial backing for a co-conspirator to travel to Vietnam and smuggle back the colorful birds.
Those birds are at risk of extinction and protected under the federal Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Dong is scheduled to plead guilty in Los Angeles to a federal conspiracy count, which carries a possible maximum penalty of up to five years in prison.
The Garden Grove resident was arrested in December at Los Angeles International Airport while awaiting the arrival of co-conspirator Quang Truong’s China Airlines flight from Vietnam, according to court papers.
Truong, 45, of Westminster had been arrested five months earlier by Vietnamese officials on suspicion of attempting to smuggle songbirds, prosecutors said.
When airport screeners at LAX checked Truong’s luggage following the 8,000-mile journey on Dec. 3, they found more than two-dozen birds in two suitcases modified to include cages, according to court documents.
The tiny Chinese hwamei songbird — which reportedly cost a few dollars apiece in Southeast Asia — fetch up to $500 or $1,000 when sold illegally at certain Chinese markets in Southern California and are thought to bring good luck.
Dong previously served four months behind bars after pleading guilty in 2009 to federal charges of illegally importing wildlife, court papers show.
Truong, who also faces charges in Los Angeles, previously entered a guilty plea, but the status of his case and the count to which he pleaded are not available to the public.
In the other case, a Fountain Valley man was sentenced Monday to six months in home detention, followed by a year behind bars, for smuggling nearly 100 tiny “good luck” songbirds — most of which died in transit — in his luggage on a flight from Vietnam.
Kurtis Law brought 93 of the colorful birds — worth an estimated $90,000 on the black market in the Southland — into the country on March 24. Investigators who searched his luggage at Los Angeles International Airport determined that the birds were at risk of extinction and protected under the federal Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The protected birds found in Law’s luggage were Bali myna, Chinese hwamei, red-billed leiothrix and silver-eared mesia. Such species are sold illegally at some Chinese markets in Southern California and are thought to bring good luck.
Prosecutors said the birds were individually wrapped and placed in Law’s suitcases under “horrific conditions” in a way “that allowed each bird little or no movement.” All but eight of the 93 birds ultimately died.
Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Manuel Real to sentence the 50- year-old defendant to two years behind bars, warning of a “heightened risk of recidivism.” The judge handed down a lesser sentence, but rejected the defense argument to keep Law out of prison.
“I have made a huge mistake,” Law said at a hearing last month in which Real heard sentencing arguments. “My passion for finding new homes for the birds … might help explain what I did.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Silber described Law as “a large-scale trafficker in wildlife” who bought and sold protected birds for profit — birds that risk extinction because of traffickers like the defendant.
—City News Service