Undercover Agent Nets Butterfly Smuggler

Ed Newcomer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went undercover to trap an international butterfly thief. Assuming an alias for three years, he caught a man who touted himself as "the world's most-wanted butterfly smuggler."

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

If you find some time during this long weekend to sit in a shady spot or work in your garden, you may see a butterfly or two float by. That's how most of us experience these graceful creatures. However, rare butterflies can command thousands of dollars and are often bought and sold illegally. Traffickers in the butterfly trade can be as hard to catch as the butterflies themselves.

Last month, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles sent Hisayoshi Kojima to prison. The Japanese native once bragged that he was the world's most-wanted butterfly smuggler. Ed Newcomer, a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, uncovered Kojima's operation, and he's at NPR West.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ED NEWCOMER (Special Agent, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

HANSEN: How did you find out that Mr. Kojima was dealing in butterflies?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, it actually goes back to 2003. I was a brand new agent in the Los Angeles field office for the Fish and Wildlife Service. I think just coincidentally, my boss brought me some information about a tip we received that this person that went by the name Yoshi Kojima was dealing pretty heavily in endangered butterflies and was planning to be at what's known as the bug fair, an annual event at the Museum of Natural History here in L.A.

HANSEN: So did you make contact with him there?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Yes. The plan was I would just go down to the fair and snoop around a little bit and see if I could find him. I wasn't quite sure how to approach it because I didn't know anything about insects or butterflies. So my strategy was just to go up to him and play the wide-eyed, curious person who was interested in getting into this hobby.

And that's what I did. I asked him a lot of questions and learned later that his ego fed off of anybody who was curious about his knowledge in this area. Eventually at the end of the day, he approached me, and he gave me a box of dried butterflies to quote, unquote, "start my collection." On that box, he left me his email address and he told me he wanted me to get in touch with him.

HANSEN: What was your cover story? What did you tell him about yourself?

Mr. NEWCOMER: I told him that I had taken over my father's business so I was pretty much self-employed, but that I didn't really like the business very well so I'd sold it, and I was flush with cash at the moment. So I never had to explain why I wasn't at work or where I was at any given point in a day. But I also had a reason to be able to buy butterflies, but also, the back story was I didn't have enough cash that I could just stop working. I had to find something else to do to make money.

HANSEN: And when he wasn't going to bug fairs, how did he sell them?

Mr. NEWCOMER: As with most wildlife traffickers these days, the Internet is the method of choice. He had a Web site based out of Kyoto, Japan, where he lived and accepted Visa, MasterCard and PayPal just like a lot other traffickers do these days.

HANSEN: If Yoshi was in Japan, how would he offer to sell the butterflies to you?

Mr. NEWCOMER: He suggested that I sign up for Skype, which is a voiceover Internet protocol program. Basically, if you have Skype and a web cam, you can speak to anybody in the world who also has Skype and a web cam, and talk to them in real time and see them in real time. And once we were set up on Skype, there were about two or three months there when we talked almost every day by Skype. And he would show me endangered butterflies that he had at his home in Japan and he'd ask me, would you like to buy this for, you know, at one point he sold me a pair of butterflies for $8,500.

HANSEN: And how did he find them? Did he go and get them himself?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, I learned later that he had a network of collectors around the world and most likely indigenous people who he paid pennies on the dollar for the butterflies and insects that they collected for him.

HANSEN: Who are his customers?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, actually, that part of the case we're still working on. But from what I could tell during my investigation, he had customers all over the world.

HANSEN: Huh. How did you finally arrest him?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, that was a three-year road. It took three years of undercover work to gain Yoshi's confidence and actually get him to sell me endangered species. And we had several meetings during which he told me that he wanted to expand his sales operation to eBay. What he wanted in reality was a fall guy, somebody who would take the arrest if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found out about it.

HANSEN: Okay, describe the arrest then.

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, the arrest happened in 2006. As my relationship with Kojima developed, I realized that there may have been some sexual attraction there on his part, which always creates a very difficult undercover situation. I'm not a homophobe. I'm not - I don't have any problems with that, but I did realize that it was an opportunity to lure him to the United States. So, actually, it was a promised date that brought Kojima to Los Angeles.

HANSEN: How did he react when he saw you in the lockup office?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Well, we arranged it so that he would be arrested by other agents because we wanted a chance to interview him and find out what he said before he knew that this person he'd been dealing with was an undercover agent. I didn't see Kojima until the next day. And when he first saw me at the jail, he looked relieved. I think he thought I was there to bail him out somehow. But he very quickly saw my holster and my badge and my handcuffs, looked rather disappointed, didn't say a word to me.

When we got to the Marshall Service, first thing he said was, so you've been fish and wild since the first day we met? He always referred to Fish and Wildlife Service as fish and wild, or fish and wild guys. And the next question Was, he looked at my wedding ring and he said, and you're married. Those were the only two questions he asked me. He never spoke to me after that.

HANSEN: During the course of developing your relationship, did he ever tell you why he did this?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Never in specific terms, but it's very obvious that Yoshi Kojima was involved in butterfly trafficking for money. It's an interesting misconception among a lot of people that wildlife criminals are mainly hobbyists gone bad, when in reality wildlife crimes - just like any other crime - is really a money and profit-based activity.

HANSEN: Where's Yoshi Kojima now?

Mr. NEWCOMER: Yoshi was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, a minimum-security facility, I'm not sure where that is - somewhere in Southern California.

HANSEN: Why did you want to do this job?

Mr. NEWCOMER: This is something I've always been interested in. I think my favorite toy was a Tonka truck designed to look like a U.S. Forest Service vehicle. And being someone who enforces the law and protects people from bad people has always been something that appealed to me. And, you know, there's really no more innocent victim than our natural environment.

You know, a bear can't call 911 and say that someone came and poached her cub. So it's really important to have law enforcement officers out there who are willing to take the time to try to solve wildlife crime. And so I just decided that that was definitely a job I wanted to pursue.

HANSEN: Special agent Ed Newcomer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He spoke to us from NPR West. Thanks a lot.

Mr. NEWCOMER: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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