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Man Accused of Smuggling King Cobras in Potato Chip Cans

This photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows three king cobra snakes that were smuggled into the U.S. from Hong Kong in potato chip canisters were seized. Uniter States Fish and Wildlife Service

A Monterey Park man was arrested on federal smuggling charges Tuesday stemming from the seizure of a package that contained three king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters.

Rodrigo Franco, 34, was taken into custody without incident by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after he was named in a federal criminal complaint filed in Los Angeles last week, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

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Franco is charged with one felony count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States, which carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, U.S. Customs and Border Protection on March 2 inspected a package sent from Hong Kong and discovered three live king cobra snakes -- a protected and highly venomous 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, prosecutors said.

On the same date, Franco also allegedly 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 USFWS.

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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 the affidavit.

During a subsequent interview with authorities, Franco allegedly admitted that he had previously received 20 king cobras in two prior shipments -- but he said all of those snakes had died in transit, 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. According to the complaint, 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.

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(Published Friday, June 22, 2018)