By Brittany Shammas
Two years ago, a Boynton Beach auctioneer told an undercover agent posing as a broker that if caught illegally selling the horns of endangered animals, he would say he was sorry and had made a mistake — and would deal with the consequences.
Christopher Hayes, president of Elite Decorative Arts, commented at the time he hoped for a "slap on the wrist," authorities say. But in a federal courtroom Wednesday, the 55-year-old Wellington man instead was sentenced to three years in prison, plus two on probation, for his role in the booming black market trade of rhino horns and elephant tusks.
Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley acknowledged that Hayes has a clean prior record, gives back to his community and is supported by a network of family and friends, many of whom came to court with him Wednesday. But the judge said it was important to impose a sentence that would serve as a deterrent.
"I have to be concerned about the message that goes out to others," Hurley said.
Federal authorities say illegal trading of rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory has skyrocketed in recent years.
More than 3,000 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2008, including 1,215 last year, the highest on record. Elephants face a similarly dire situation, with more than 100,000 illegally killed from 2010 through 2012.
The motivation, officials say, is money. Products made from the animals are valued by some cultures as good luck charms or cures for medical issues, and command tens of thousands of dollars.
"Rhino horn can sell for more than gold and is just as rare, but rhino horn and elephant ivory are more than mere commodities," officials said in court records filed in Hayes' case. "Each illegally traded horn or tusk represents a dead animal, poaching, bribery, smuggling and/or organized crime."
To fight back, law enforcement launched Operation Crash, a multi-district effort meant to find and prosecute those involved. Hayes was among the more than two dozen people arrested in the operation, which includes prosecutions in New York, New Jersey, Texas and California.
According to court documents, Hayes admitted in a January guilty plea to selling six endangered black rhino horns, including two that went to a Texas man involved in smuggling them to China. The horns sold at prices ranging from $36,800 to $80,500.
Hayes also admitted selling items made from protected coral and others carved from elephant ivory, and helping smuggle some of the items out of the country by falsifying shipping documents and using third-party shippers.
Other people involved in the case have already been sentenced and Hayes' company, which will be operated by family members while he's in custody, has agreed to pay a fine of $1.5 million over five years.
In court Wednesday, Hayes' attorney, Benedict Kuehne, asked the judge to consider a penalty lower than the 37 to 46 months the sentencing guidelines called for. He said Hayes supports his elderly parents and his adult son, who suffers from a congenital heart defect. He also has donated to his church and helped students with their educational pursuits, the attorney said.
Longtime friend James Corbett told the judge Hayes had always been a responsible person, one who never had a chance to pursue higher education because he was raising his children, who helped others in need and who built a successful business despite the odds against him.
And in his own sometimes emotional appeal, Hayes said he had made a "terrible mistake."
"I just want to say to you, your honor, I apologize to you from the depth of my heart," he said to Hurley. "I believe whatever happens to me today through you, it's God's will."
But the federal prosecutor handling the case said the judge should follow the recommended sentence. He said the argument made by Hayes and his attorney was the same one he made two years ago, while under investigation.
"He's asking for a slap on the wrist," Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald said.
In handing down the sentence, Hurley said that Hayes, despite leading an exemplary life in other areas, "clearly knew what he was doing" in illegally selling the items and had seemingly "developed a blind eye" to it.
Outside the courtroom, Kuehne called the penalty "reasonable but firm."
"Mr. Hayes recognizes the seriousness of the sentence and intends to spend every waking moment educating his industry about the need to be proactive in protecting animals and endangered species," he said.