After FWC officer destroys their defense, men who illegally possessed sea-turtle tail plead no contest

Two Miami men who were caught with the tail of an endangered loggerhead sea turtle in Marathon in January are banned from fishing and diving in Monroe County for the next 18 months.

At a Wednesday hearing at the Marathon courthouse, Monroe County Judge Ruth Becker didn't believe defense attorney Gregory Davila when he said David Hernandez Sordo, 48, and Pedro Suarez, 59, found the tail floating in the water and decided to use it to catch mackerel.

Sordo and Suarez, each solemn and dressed in black, ended up pleading no contest. In addition to the fishing and diving ban, they're on probation for 18 months, must forfeit their fishing licenses and must take Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission classes about the environment. They also must pay $2,511.50 in court costs and fines.

Possessing sea turtles or any part of them is against the law.

"I've been fishing here since 1994," Suarez told Becker in Spanish through an interpreter. "We had nothing to do with this. We picked it up and put it in the truck."

Testifying for the prosecution, FWC Capt. David Dipre said that "in my 25 years [with the FWC], I've never heard of anyone using a turtle tail to catch mackerel. They would have had cut portions off the tail for bait. There are no other cuts."

Dipre said if the tail had been floating, it would have been infected from aeration and saltwater. According to the captain, the turtle tail was too fresh to be floating in saltwater and had a clean cut where it was attached to the loggerhead's body.

"That piece of flesh is too dense to float," Dipre said.

Becker called his testimony "overwhelming credible evidence." In light of that, Sordo and Suarez decided to plea out.

The two were stopped by FWC officers at mile marker 54 in Marathon on Jan. 29 after running a red light in a Ford pickup truck with a boat in tow. Officers searched the truck, finding a bloody fillet knife. Sordo and Suarez gave the officers consent to search the vessel, where they found the loggerhead turtle tail.

About 25 people attended the hearing, most of them from the Turtle Hospital and Save-a-Turtle. Turtle advocates were happy the men have third-degree felonies on their records but the advocates had hoped for jail time.

"In the past, cases in the Keys that involved butchered sea turtles were reduced to misdemeanors," said Turtle Hospital Manager Bette Zirkelbach. "The state statutes clearly state knowingly possessing any marine turtle part is a felony."