Man connected with Valdosta snake scare indicted

File PhotoVanessa Lane, a wildlife biologist from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, shows an adult ball python to the audience at Wood Valley Community Center in late May 2018 at a meeting to combat rumors about escaped snakes in the neighborhood following a warrant search.

VALDOSTA — A man involved in a 2018 escaped snake scare has been arrested and indicted on weapons and illegal wildlife trafficking charges, authorities said.

Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Dalzell, S.C., was charged by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Georgia last month for trafficking vipers and turtles, as well as illegally possessing two firearms, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. The indictment was sealed until April 1.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested Rance March 30 on a warrant to face the charges in the Middle District of Georgia, the statement said. He maintained a home in Valdosta, the justice department said.

The indictment claimed that in February 2018, the suspect sold 16 spotted turtles and three eastern box turtles to a buyer in Florida and shipped the reptiles from Valdosta in a package falsely labeled as containing tropical fish and lizards.

The indictment also said that in May 2018, a second package was sent to Florida with a label stating it contained harmless reptiles and ball pythons when in reality, 15 Gaboon vipers, which are venomous snakes, had been shipped.

On May 11, 2018, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Rance’s Valdosta home, where they recovered a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun, the statement said. It is a violation of federal law for a convicted felon to possess a firearm, and Rance had a prior felony conviction, according to the justice department.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources had noted an increased number of snake calls to local animal control, mostly involving non-venomous African ball pythons, said Capt. Scott Kringel, then the regional supervisor for the DNR’s South Central Georgia law enforcement district.

The search triggered rumors in the surrounding neighborhood — the Riverside Drive / Wood Valley subdivision area — about pythons escaping from the house. Two weeks later, a town hall meeting was held in Wood Valley to reassure residents that the snakes in question, ball pythons, were not dangerous; a snake expert from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College was on hand.

A Gaboon viper was removed from the home, Kringel said. Also removed were six “mildly venomous” beak snakes that posed no threat to humans, he said.

Any snakes that made their way from the man’s house into the Wood Valley neighborhood likely escaped on their own due to the large volume of creatures he was keeping, Kringel said.

The federal Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits, among other things, transporting wildlife in interstate commerce if the wildlife was illegal under state laws. The indictment claims Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. It also is a Lacey Act violation to falsely label a package containing wildlife.

The case is being investigated by the fish and wildlife service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Fla., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as part of Operation Middleman, which focuses on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China. 

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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