A Fountain Valley man was sentenced Monday to six months in home detention, followed by a year behind bars, for smuggling nearly 100 tiny “good luck” songbirds — most of which died in transit — in his luggage on a flight from Vietnam.
The Birds Are Endangered
Kurtis Law brought 93 of the colorful birds — worth an estimated $90,000 on the black market in the Southland — into the country on March 24. Investigators who searched his luggage at Los Angeles International Airport determined that the birds were at risk of extinction and protected under the federal Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
According to court documents, songbirds can be purchased in Southeast Asia for $1 or $2 each but fetch as much as $1,000 apiece in the United States.
The protected birds found in Law’s luggage were Bali myna, Chinese hwamei, red-billed leiothrix and silver-eared mesia. Such species are sold illegally at some Chinese markets in Southern California and are thought to bring good luck.
Only 8 Of The Songbirds Survived
Prosecutors said the birds were individually wrapped and placed in Law’s suitcases under “horrific conditions” in a way “that allowed each bird little or no movement.” All but eight of the 93 birds ultimately died.
Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Manuel Real to sentence the 50- year-old defendant to two years behind bars, warning of a “heightened risk of recidivism.” The judge handed down a lesser sentence, but rejected the defense argument to keep Law out of prison.
“I have made a huge mistake,” Law said at a hearing last month in which Real heard sentencing arguments. “My passion for finding new homes for the birds … might help explain what I did.”
“A Large-Scale Trafficker In Wildlife”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Silber described Law as “a large-scale trafficker in wildlife” who bought and sold protected birds for profit — birds that risk extinction because of traffickers like the defendant.
“This is a particularly cruel scheme to make money,” the prosecutor told Real as the judge looked at photos of the dying or dead birds — placed into boxes, their wings constricted.
Law’s attorney countered that there was no evidence that the defendant was attempting to profit from the birds.
Described Himself As “Jane Goodall”
In a letter to the court, Law described himself as “Jane Goodall to the Asian bird world,” a reference to the British conservationist known for her support of animal welfare issues. He told Real that his main interest was in protecting the birds and giving them new homes in the United States.
Law pleaded guilty in July to one felony count of importing wildlife contrary to law.
Silber said Law’s now-defunct company — which advertised sales of Asian birds on the internet — was one of the largest such operations he has seen.