By Levi Pulkkinen
Bellingham man caught with dozens of bird, primate skulls
It’s safe to say 2014 isn’t Drew Weidenbacher’s year.
In August, state health officials sanctioned the Bellingham therapist after he penned a love song to a client and released it on YouTube. Weidenbacher, a married man, kissed and propositioned the woman after she came to him seeking help in moving past a bad marriage.
Strange as that was, the 53-year-old is expected to appear before a federal judge to own up to more peculiar misbehavior – the illegal importation of dozens of animal skulls, some of which came from endangered species.
Facing a misdemeanor charge, Weidenbacher previously admitted to violating the Endangered Species Act as part of a plea agreement that saw prosecutors promise not to seek a jail term. He is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday morning at the U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The exact extent of Weidenbacher’s animal trading remains unclear, though Assistant U.S. Attorney James Oesterle said in court papers Weidenbacher bought and sold animals on “numerous” occasions.
“While the dollar value of the trafficked specimens was relatively low, some of the species were afforded the highest level of protection available” under law, Oesterle said in court papers.
Weidenbacher previously ran afoul of animal trading laws in 2005, when he was caught importing dozens of bird skulls without the proper permits. He also bought a pair of orangutan skulls in 2006; they, like the bird skulls, were surrendered to authorities after they were discovered.
Criminal investigators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched another investigation in 2011 after Customs inspectors stopped a package from Nigeria to Weidenbacher’s Bellingham home, a Fish and Wildlife Service investigator said in court papers.
Inside the brown cardboard box, investigators found a macaque monkey skeleton. The sender claimed in a Customs declaration to be sending Weidenbacher “crafts.”
Investigators delivered the package to Weidenbacher’s home, where his wife received it. Investigators then began watching Weidenbacher’s mail.
One package – apparently damaged during shipping – was stuffed with owl and parrot feathers sent from Belgium. Red and brown feathers stuck out of the poorly wrapped package.
An undercover postal inspector delivered it to Weidenbacher, who gave the inspector two feathers for his trouble. Weidenbacher told the inspector to “forget the address where he got them,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service agent’s statement.
While investigators were watching, Weidenbacher also was sent a package from a Nigerian wildlife exporter. Investigators seized it and opened it after securing a search warrant. Inside, they found 38 bird skulls and parts, none of which had been declared to Customs officials.
Before wrapping up Weidenbacher’s operation in November 2012, investigators determined he’d received bones and other parts taken from the greater slow loris – an animal listed as “threatened” on the world Endangered Species List – as well as several African birds and a pangolin, an armadillo-like creature living in Africa and southern Asia.
Several of the animals Weidenbacher traded in are protected by an international treaty – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – that has been incorporated into U.S. law. The species at issue have been deemed in danger of extinction due in part to the commercial animal trade.
Writing the court, Oesterle acknowledged Weidenbacher’s crimes were less egregious than most that land people in federal court. Still, Weidenbacher flouted international laws that he knew well after years of working with animal parts.
International animal smuggling is a large, persistent problem that undermines conservation efforts meant to sustain species in danger of disappearing, the federal prosecutor said in court papers. Weidenbacher’s conduct is a tiny but illustrative part of that illicit industry.
In July 2013, President Obama issued an executive order meant to fight wildlife trafficking. In it, Obama described trafficking as an international crisis that United States authorities should combat through prosecuting American violators.
“The government cannot, and will not, argue that Mr. Weidenbacher’s trafficking activities led to the extinction of any species,” Oesterle said in court papers. “While the scope of the charged conduct is dwarfed by the international crisis, this prosecution and others from across the country communicate the United States’ commitment to its international treaty obligations to prosecute and punish those found to violate the law.”
Prosecutors and Weidenbacher asked that he be sentenced to 60 hours of community service, fined $5,000 and monitored by the court for two years. They’ve also asked that Weidenbacher be ordered to participate in mental health therapy for two years. More....