Man convicted of turtle smuggling charged with cruelty to animals in Georgia

A South Carolina man previously convicted of smuggling protected turtles between the United States and Hong Kong faces new allegations of turtle-related crimes in Georgia.  

Bibb County sheriff's deputies arrested and jailed Steven Verren Baker, 43, of Holly Hill, South Carolina, on Tuesday and charged him with 15 felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals.

No lawyer was listed in Georgia court records for Baker, who remained jailed Friday with bail set at $8,250. His South Carolina lawyer has since died.

Deputies were responding to a call about an abandoned dog in Macon when they noticed turtles being held in a basin nestled in a pile of trash, WMAZ-TV reports. They wrote in an incident report that a woman identified as Baker's mother told deputies that Baker had left the turtles with her about two months ago. The mother agreed to hand the turtles over to deputies, saying she had been unable to get her son to retrieve them. 

A veterinarian said the turtles were suffering from long-term malnutrition, bacterial and fungal infections, sepsis and shell deformities.

The turtles included 11 rare albino red-eared sliders, one brown red-eared slider and two pink-bellied side necks. There was also a Chinese golden thread turtle, which is considered endangered in the wild, but is legal to breed in captivity.

Baker pleaded guilty in 2018 to one count of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife in federal court in South Carolina after postal inspectors at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York found 46 turtles concealed among noodles and candy in four packages in early 2016. The turtles would be placed in socks and shipped through the mail in boxes labeled "snacks." 

Five other men pleaded guilty in the South Carolina court case, but officials described Baker as the ringleader. Federal officials say Baker was sending turtles from the United States to Hong Kong, as well as receiving turtles from Hong Kong. It's illegal to trade turtles abroad without a permit when they are protected by a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Baker served more than two years in federal prison, followed by two years of supervised release that ended in April 2022.

Baker was also ordered to forfeit $263,225, which is what officials said the turtles were worth.