California man pleads guilty to participating in international amphibian smuggling ring

A Tahoe City man pleaded guilty Monday to one count of smuggling goods after law enforcement found 81 live newts in his home, some of which tested positive for a poisonous fungus.

The Placer County resident, Andrew Laughlin, told an undercover agent that he was participating in an “international amphibian smuggling ring” to acquire “hard-to-find” newts, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.

The man shipped or received at least four packages of amphibians, which contained Eastern Box and spotted turtles and Asian warty, fire belly and native Californian newts, prosecutors said.

The boxes were falsely labeled as they made their way to or from Hong Kong and Sweden as “rubber toys,” “toy cars” and “ceramic art piece,” according to the news release.

As part of his plea deal, Laughlin will have to undertake a voluntary public education campaign about the harms of smuggling illegal amphibians at the kayak store he owns, as well as pay fees for the costs of caring for and testing the newts.

Bd, the fungus that some of the seized newts tested positive for, has spread through illegal amphibian trade and significantly reduced populations of over 500 newt species, scientists said, 90 of which are now extinct.

The fungus originated in Asia and can sporadically kill amphibians or kill all those infected.

Laughlin’s sentence will be determined by the court, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 7.