Keys Commercial Lobster Operation Results in Convictions, Seizures, and Forfeitures
Jeffrey H. Sloman, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Eddie McKissick, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Hal Robbins, Special Agent in Charge, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division, Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), and Major Mike Edwards, Regional Commander South B, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), announced today that the final defendants in an anti-poaching investigation, Operation Freezer Burn, were sentenced in federal District Court in Miami by U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez. The six conspirators charged in the Indictment were David W. Dreifort, 41, Denise D. Dreifort, 48, both of Cudjoe Key, Robert H. Hammer, 46, of Miami, Sean N. Reyngoudt, 25, of Summerland Key, John R. Niles, 50, of Labelle, and Michael Delph, 39, of Key West. They were each charged with harvesting spiny lobster within the FKNMS from illegally installed artificial habitats, and for being in violation of applicable bag limits, for commercial sale in violation of the federal Lacey Act; all in violation of the federal conspiracy statute, Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.
David Dreifort was sentenced today to imprisonment for a period of thirty months, followed by three years of supervised release. As a special condition of his sentence, Dreifort is prohibited from engaging in any fishing activities for a period of five years, in the Southern District of Florida, and waters contiguous thereto.
Denise Dreifort was sentenced today to imprisonment for a period of seven months, followed by three years of supervised release. As a special condition of her sentence, Denise Dreifort must also serve a term of home confinement of seven months, with electronic monitoring and is prohibited from engaging in any fishing activities for a period of five years, in the Southern District of Florida, and waters contiguous thereto.
In addition to the other terms of their sentences, the Dreiforts were further ordered to forfeit all their right, title, and interest in three vehicles and three vessels identified in the forfeiture count of the Indictment, which were used in the commission of the offenses charged.
On June 11, 2009, Robert Hammer was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of two months, a term of home confinement for six months, with electronic monitoring, followed by a period of supervised release of two years. The Court also prohibited Hammer from any fishing activities, commercial or pleasure, within the Southern District of Florida and adjacent waters for the duration of his supervised release. In a related matter before U.S. District Court Judge James L. King, Hammer was also convicted and then sentenced on April 30, 2009, in connection with the sale of fish which had been illegally received and acquired, knowing said fish was taken, possessed, transported, and sold, in violation of Title 16, United States Code, Sections 3372(a)(1) and 3373(d)(1)(B). For his role in that case, Hammer was sentenced to serve a term of supervised release of six months to run concurrently with his sentence imposed today. The Court further ordered Hammer to pay $20,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Congressionally-chartered organization authorized by law to receive payments arising as a result of criminal convictions.
On June 10, 2009, Sean Reyngoudt, was sentenced to a term of home confinement for four months with electronic monitoring, a period of probation of four years, and 300 hours of community service. The Court also prohibited Reyngoudt from any fishing activities, commercial or pleasure, within the Southern District of Florida and adjacent waters for four years.
On June 2, 2009, Michael Delph was sentenced to a ten month term of imprisonment, a term of home confinement of six months with electronic monitoring, 100 hours of community service, and a period of supervised release of two years.
John Niles, the first to enter a guilty plea in this matter, cooperated in the case, and testified against his co-defendant Delph. In recognition of his acceptance of responsibility, minor role, and assistance in the case, Niles was sentenced on April 2, 2009, to a term of probation of one year.
Restrictions to Preserve the FKNMS:
The FKNMS is a 2,900 square nautical mile area that surrounds the entire archipelago of the Florida Keys and includes the productive waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. It encompasses coastal and oceanic waters, and the submerged lands thereunder, surrounding the Florida Keys, and extending westward to include the Tortugas islands, but excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. The FKNMS supports rich biological communities with extensive conservation, recreational, commercial, ecological, historical, research, educational, and aesthetic values of national significance.
Marine Sanctuary regulations prohibit any alterations of, or construction on the seabed of the FKNMS, as part of the effort to preserve the marine environment. In addition, the Florida Administrative Code, Chapter 68B, which apply to the FKNMS, prohibits anyone from harvesting any spiny lobster from artificial habitat. Artificial habitat is defined as “any material placed in the waters of the state that is reasonably suited to providing cover and habitat for spiny lobster… ” Other parts of Chapter 68B prohibit any person from commercially harvesting, attempting to harvest, or having in their possession, regardless of where taken, any spiny lobster during the closed season. The commercial season runs from August 6th through March 31st of the following year. An exception exists for the annual lobster sport mini-season. Those holding appropriate licenses and endorsements to commercially dive for lobster are limited to 250 lobster per day.
The Defendants’ Actions:
According to evidence presented through pleadings, trial, and other in-court statements, the six defendants were directly involved in the harvest of 922 whole lobster, as part of a conspiracy that illegally took 1,197 lobster on the opening day of Florida’s commercial lobster season in August 2008, and stockpiled approximately 1,700 pounds of wrung lobster tail harvested during the closed season, which was intended for sale after opening day.
NOAA and FWS Special Agents became aware of a group constructing artificial lobster habitat, often referred to informally as “casitas” or “condos” in the lower Keys. According to testimony at trial, agents tracked a boat on July 28, 2008, owned by David Dreifort, as it traveled entirely within the waters of the Sanctuary, harvesting spiny lobsters out of season. Subsequently the lobsters were placed in a freezer at a lower Keys residence, which held about 650 pounds of previously harvested, frozen tails. The pattern of stock piling and freezing lobsters taken ahead of the legal season led agents to dub the case “Operation Freezer Burn.” Officers returned to the GPS logged sites within the FKNMS and found each site held artificial habitats. The divers also found freshly wrung spiny lobster heads.
On opening day of the annual commercial lobster season, August 6, 2008, a multi-agency team executed a search warrant at the Dreifort residence, and executed five seizure warrants, taking custody of boats, vehicles, and a trailer used in the criminal violations. Over 1,700 pounds of frozen lobster tails, representing more than 1,000 times the legal bag limit for a mini-season sport dive were seized by agents. The defendants, with the exception of Reyngoudt, were intercepted as they returned from a morning harvesting trip in the FKNMS, during which more than 922 lobsters were illegally harvested. Part of the harvest effort was recorded by a surveillance aircraft, and shown to the jury during the Delph trial. The jury also heard a statement recorded by agents on August 6th, during which Delph admitted to diving on illegal habitat and harvesting an excessive number of lobsters that day. He further admitted that he had contacted David Dreifort before the season to offer his services as a lobster diver, in anticipation of being paid for his involvement, and confessed to having been involved in the same activity on multiple occasions during the prior year’s open season.
Defendant Hammer’s Related Action:
Hammer formerly held a special use permit to operate a commercial enterprise at Dry Tortugas National Park. The permit authorized him to bring passengers for hire to the Park [at Fort Jefferson] and engage in various activities, including recreational angling. The permit, and National Park Service (NPS) regulations, prohibit commercial fishing activities, which bars the sale of any fish harvested from Park waters.
According to information presented in Court, FWS agents, assisting NPS Rangers, conducted surveillance of Hammer’s operations and determined that he was commercially selling fin fish to brokers and retail fish dealers in the Miami area. Witness statements and observation of his activities established that between $10,0000 and $30,000 in fair market value fish were taken from the federally protected areas and sold commercially.
The $20,000 that Hammer was ordered to pay to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will be used by the organization to acquire and distribute commercially available side-scan sonar and Global Positioning System Tracker equipment to assist in the location, identification, and abatement of resource violations within the National Sanctuaries, Refuges, and Parks of the Florida Keys and adjacent waters, and to assist in the identification and apprehension of violators of the marine resource and wildlife protection laws.
Parallel Civil Proceeding:
In a parallel civil proceeding, the federal government brought suit against the Dreiforts under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, seeking compensation for costs and damages incurred as a result of natural resource injuries caused by the Dreiforts’ artificial habitats within the Sanctuary. On June 17, 2009, a civil consent decree was approved and entered in the case on behalf of NOAA, to settle the federal government’s civil claims against the Dreiforts. Under the terms of the consent decree, the Dreiforts must sell two properties in the Florida Keys, including their residence at Cudjoe Key, which was the staging ground for the criminal conduct, to reimburse the agency’s costs and pay damages in the case. The Dreiforts will pay NOAA the proceeds from the sales, up to a maximum of $1.1 million. The funds will be used by NOAA to remove approximately 700 casitas that were illegally placed in the FKNMS.
Mr. Sloman commended the coordinated investigative efforts of the NOAA Office for Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the personnel of the National Marine Fisheries Service Restoration Center and the Damage Assessment & Resource Protection Office of the National Marine Sanctuary Program which brought the matter to a successful conclusion. The criminal case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald, in coordination with Steven Keller of the Environmental Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC, which prosecuted the civil claims.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.
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