Man sentenced for smuggling king cobras in potato chip cans into Los Angeles

FILE - This undated photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows a king cobra snake hidden in a potato chip can that was found in the mail in Los Angeles. Rodrigo Franco was sentenced to five months in federal prison on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, for smuggling three highly venomous king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters through the mail. In a plea agreement, Franco admitted smuggling another 20 cobras, as well as sending protected turtles to Hong Kong. He was also sentenced to two years of supervised release. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California man was sentenced to five months in federal prison for smuggling three highly venomous king cobra snakes through the mail in potato chip canisters.

In a plea agreement, Rodrigo Franco acknowledged smuggling another 20 cobras into Los Angeles, but he said they all died in transit. He also said he tried to mail protected turtles from the United States to Hong Kong, but that package was intercepted by federal agents.

“Reptiles are my passion,” the 34-year-old, ex-auto mechanic wrote to Judge George H. Wu, who also sentenced Franco to two years of supervised release on Monday.

The three king cobras — each about two feet (just over half a meter) long — were found last 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.

Federal agents 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.

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