Five enter guilty pleas in rhino horn trafficking


Five people, including a former rodeo cowboy from Hico, have pleaded guilty to federal charges of trafficking in black rhinoceros horns for the illicit Asian folk-medicine market, a U.S. attorney in Los Angeles said Friday.

“I wanted to make money like everyone else, but if I knew then what I know now, I’d never get into it,” said ex-PRCA steer wrestler Wade Steffen, 32, who disclosed that he changed his not guilty plea because he was remorseful and needs to support his family and pay $200,000 in hospital bills for a serious camel bite he got in Texas where he trained dromedaries along with horses.

But Steffen insisted that no endangered rhinos were killed for their horns. The horns came from antique trophy mounts, including a number bought in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Hico cowboy said.

Last October, he was under surveillance by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents when he acquired three mounted rhino heads through a straw buyer in Fort Worth at the World Class Big Game Trophy Mount and Western Auction, said Tim Santel, a service enforcement official.

Santel said there would more arrests, including some in Texas.

“People think I went to Africa, shot rhinos and cut off [their horns]. Not true,” Steffen said in a telephone interview from Richmond, Ill., where he is visiting family. “Most were at least 60 years old. One was shot in 1900.”

His Chicago attorney, Michael C. Goode, said the maximum punishment is 20 years for Steffen, but he expressed hope the federal judge in Los Angeles takes into account extenuating circumstances. Steffen is sorry, has a 1 1/2 year-old child and he and his wife Molly are expecting another child, Goode said. His client wants to return to Texas to train horses.

Agents seized more than $337,000 in cash from Steffen, who said he was paid a 10 percent commission from smugglers. He paid as much as $70,000 for a horn, he told the Star-Telegram. “Prices started getting crazy at the end.”


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About endoftheicons

The Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia is in grave danger. Local politicians want to allow logging, mining and palm oil plantations in this vulnerable area. Sumatran orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers are already hanging on by a thread. They will not survive the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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