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Wheelchair Wildlife smuggler convicted on charges of importing birds from Cuba

August 5, 2005

R. Alexander Acosta, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Resident Agent in Charge Eddie McKissick, United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Alan Christian, Director of Investigative & Enforcement Service, United States Department of Agriculture, and Jeffrey Baldwin, Port Director, Department of Homeland Security, Customs And Border Protection, announced today that defendant, Mercedes Ruiz,

54, of Miami, was convicted yesterday on her plea of guilty before United States District Court Judge Alan S. Gold, in Miami, for her attempted importation of undeclared wildlife and for making false statements on a Customs Service Declaration, in violation of the Lacey Act, Title 16, United States Code, Section 3373 and the false statement statute, Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001.

According to the criminal charges and statements in Court, Ruiz
departed for Cuba from Miami on June 26, 2004. She returned to Miami on June 28, aboard a flight connecting through the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. After landing, Ruiz, who was using a motorized wheelchair, was encountered on the baggage floor of Concourse E at Miami International Airport by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Officer and his partner 'QT', a member of Miami’s Beagle Brigade. The Beagle Brigade is a team of trained canines, who along with their handlers, are charged with inspecting passengers and luggage entering the United States to prevent the possible introduction of destructive pests in food and fruit items carried by passengers. In this instance, QT alerted to the area around the base of Ruiz’ wheelchair. Inspection revealed the presence of several cloth pouches, bungee-corded to the underside of the chair, which were found to contain a total of 39 birds, some of which had already died from being confined in small plastic tubes inside the pouches.

According to records filed in the case, Ruiz had been intercepted on three prior occasions in the Bahamas, attempting to smuggle wildlife into the United States aboard planes to Miami.

According to statements made in court and the Indictment, Ruiz also completed a Customs Service Declaration Form on which she falsely claimed, in response to a specific question thereon, that she was not carrying any animals or wildlife into the United States.

Under federal law, birds being imported to the United States must be placed in a licensed quarantine facility before they can be released into the country. The purpose of the quarantine regulations is, in part, to protect both commercial and wild species of avians in the United States from possible exposure to diseases such as Newcastle’s and other maladies against which they would have no natural immunity.

Sentencing before Judge Gold has been set for October 18, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. in Miami. Ruiz faces a potential prison sentence of up to five years on each of the two Counts of conviction and a possible fine of up to $250,000 per Count.

Mr. Acosta commended the investigative efforts of the Special Agents of the Fish & Wildlife Service, Investigators of the Department of Agriculture, and the Inspectors with Department of Homeland Security, Customs And Border Protection. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald.

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