LOS ANGELES – A man has been charged with stealing three endangered iguanas from a nature preserve in Fiji and smuggling them into the United States in his prosthetic leg.
Jereme James, 33, faces a single count of smuggling, according to a federal indictment returned Friday in Los Angeles. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Prosecutors say he stole the Fiji Island banded iguanas while visiting the South Pacific island in September 2002. He then brought the reptiles to the U.S. by hiding them in a special compartment he had constructed in his prosthetic leg, prosecutors said.
James will be summoned to appear for his arraignment next month.
James, who was not taken into custody, could not be located for comment. Authorities believe he had not yet retained a lawyer, and a call to a J. James in Long Beach was not immediately returned.
James came under scrutiny several years ago when someone informed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that he had several of the neon green iguanas, which are protected under an international treaty regulating trade in endangered species.
During an undercover probe, James told investigators he sold three of the iguanas for $32,000, prosecutors said.
When a search warrant was served at his house on April 26, Fish and Wildlife agents seized four iguanas. Authorities suspect James may have bred the creatures to sell them.
"That's what we believe has been going on," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph O. Johns said. "Mother nature has taken her course."
The seized iguanas will end up in a breeding program in the U.S., Johns said.