VALDOSTA — A Florida man pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to shipping venomous snakes and turtles in a scheme that caused panic in a Valdosta neighborhood, authorities said.
Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, of Miami, pleaded guilty to one count of Lacey Act trafficking and one count possession of a firearm by a convicted felon on Thursday. The maximum sentence under the Lacey Act and illegal possession of a firearm charges are five and 10 years of imprisonment, respectively, and a $250,000 fine for each charge. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Valdosta.
The Lacey Act prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested Rance March 30.
An 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, a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice 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.
Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.