Man accused of smuggling king cobras in potato chip cans

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A man was arrested on federal smuggling charges Tuesday after customs officers intercepted a shipment with three live king cobras hidden inside potato chip canisters that were being mailed to his California home, U.S. prosecutors said.

Rodrigo Franco, 34, was scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles on a charge of illegally importing merchandise. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had an attorney who could comment on the allegations.

The three king cobra snakes — each about two feet (just over half a meter) long — were found in March when Customs and Border Protection officers inspected a package that was mailed from Hong Kong, prosecutors said. There were also three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles in the package, authorities said.

Federal agents removed the cobras but delivered the turtles to Franco’s home in Monterey Park.

The agents later served a search warrant there and found tanks with a live baby Morelet’s crocodile, alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamond back terrapins. Prosecutors say all of the reptiles are protected under U.S. law.

Franco admitted to an agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that he had previously received 20 king cobras in two other shipments, but he said they all died in transit, according to court documents.

Photographs of the snakes were sent to Ian Recchio, the reptile curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, for verification. He confirmed they were king cobras, but said the zoo did not house them because they had no anti-venom to protect against possible bites, NPR reports.

The affidavit noted that the closest source would be the San Diego Zoo, over two hours away. Recchio said that distance was too far for someone with a king cobra bite to travel.

According to the document, “If someone had been bitten by one of the cobras, they likely would have died as there is not a ready source of anti-venom that he knew about in Los Angeles.”

Federal agents also searched Franco’s phone and found that he exchanged messages with an individual in Asia about shipping turtles and snakes between Hong Kong and the U.S., prosecutors said. Franco said in those messages that he had previously received live cobras and planned to give five of the snakes to a relative of the contact in Virginia, court papers said.

If convicted, Franco faces up to 20 years in prison.

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