BUSHNELL, Fla. — A total of seven Florida and Georgia men have been charged in what wildlife authorities call an “elaborate organized enterprise” to illegally smuggle flying squirrels out of the Sunshine State.
The Florida suspects have been identified as Rodney Crendell Knox, 66, of Bushnell; Kenneth Lee Roebuck, 59, of Lake Panasoffkee; Donald Lee Harrod Jr., 49, of Bushnell; and Vester Ray Taylor Jr., 40, of Webster. Jong Yun Baek, 56, of Marietta, Georgia, and Ervin Woodyard Jr., 40, of Greenville, Georgia, have also been charged in the case, along with an unnamed fugitive, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Wildlife officials received an anonymous complaint in January 2019 regarding people illegally trapping flying squirrels in rural Marion County, according to a news release from the commission.
“Flying squirrels, a protected wild animal in Florida, are sold internationally in the pet trade,” the news release said.
A National Geographic report on Knox, the wildlife dealer at the center of the smuggling ring, states that the creatures have gained popularity as exotic pets, despite their high-energy nocturnal nature.
“If it crawls or flies in Florida, and there’s a market for it, and it’s legal, I’ll catch it,” Knox told wildlife officers during a 2019 inspection of his business that was caught on body camera. “And if I can’t, I’ll figure a way.”
Unbeknownst to Knox, he and his alleged associates were already under investigation, National Geographic reported.
The tipster told authorities that people had been trapping the squirrels in a Marion County subdivision. Over the course of 19 months, the commission’s investigation showed that the animals were being illegally captured by poachers in multiple central Florida counties.
Wildlife officers who went to the Rainbow Lakes neighborhood following the Jan. 15, 2019, tip found Roebuck and Harrod trapping squirrels. According to documents obtained by National Geographic, the men admitted to having 31 squirrels in their truck.
They’d placed about 350 traps, which resemble wooden birdhouses, in the trees, the documents showed.
Roebuck and Harrod told authorities they would sell the squirrels they caught to Knox, who investigators learned would then launder the creatures through his licensed business, Rodney Knox Farm.
Knox claimed the squirrels had been bred in captivity, the release said. An investigator told National Geographic that Knox’s explanation was not credible.
All 177 flying squirrels found at Knox’s farm were in a single cage, which is not the typical setup for a breeding operation. He was fined $350 for the cage violation, but wildlife investigators continued to probe his dealings.
Investigators placed GPS trackers on Knox’s and Harrod’s vehicles, as well as a vehicle belonging to Taylor, who had by this time been recorded on security cameras trapping squirrels in Weeki Wachee, about 35 miles west of Bushnell. National Geographic reported that while they were monitoring Knox’s current business, they were also learning more about his dealings over the years.
“The poachers deployed as many as 10,000 squirrel traps throughout central Florida and as many as 3,600 flying squirrels were captured in less than three years,” the FWC news release said. "In three years, the wildlife dealer received as much as $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds.
“The FWC estimates the international retail value of the poached wildlife will exceed $1 million.”
Wildlife investigators learned that buyers from South Korea would come to the U.S. and buy the squirrels from Knox. The wildlife dealer’s main customer was a company called Hayyim Creative, which, according to records, paid Knox $213,800 for more than 2,000 since late 2017.
“The animals were driven in rental cars to Chicago, where the source of the animals was further concealed, and the animals were exported to Asia by an unwitting international wildlife exporter,” FWC investigators allege. "As the operation expanded, couriers from the state of Georgia would take over the transports.
“One Georgia courier would fly to Orlando, rent a vehicle and drive the animals to Atlanta. A second hired courier would then drive the animals to Chicago. Each of the new participants would not know the identity of the other suspects.”
Over the course of the probe, investigators learned that the Florida suspects were also dealing in protected freshwater turtles and alligators, the news release said. National Geographic reported that in the late 2010s, Knox’s alligator business came under scrutiny after FWC inspectors found that more than 100 of his alligators had vanished in a three-year period.
Knox claimed they had been stolen. Investigators at one point found 800 alligator eggs at his farm, which was a physical and legal impossibility since his breeding business only had six alligator nests. He ultimately was charged with felony crimes related to at least seven hatchlings that allegedly came from an illegal source, the nature magazine reported.
A state and federal task force was established to take down the operation.
“The Illinois Conservation Police, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Homeland Security Investigations worked closely together to collect evidence of the international smuggling operation,” authorities said. “The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was also instrumental in intercepting wildlife shipments to California. The FWC investigators detected illegally taken freshwater turtles were shipped from Tampa International Airport to Los Angeles. California agents were notified and intercepted the wildlife shipments.”
Knox, Roebuck, Harrod and the unnamed fugitive are all charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, scheme to defraud, grand theft and dealing in stolen property. Knox is also charged with money laundering.
Taylor is charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and dealing in stolen property. Baek is charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and Woodyard is charged with unlawful possession of wildlife.
According to authorities, Woodyard also violated his probation on a human trafficking charge out of Georgia.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” Maj. Grant Burton, section leader of FWC’s investigation division, said in a statement. “The concerned citizen who initially reported this activity started an investigation that uncovered a major smuggling operation. These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations.”
© 2020 Cox Media Group