Scott Gordon, NBC 5 News
A Texas cowboy accused of smuggling rhinoceros horns to Asia allegedly bought some of them at auction in Fort Worth.
A Texan is among seven people arrested on charges of trafficking in endangered rhinoceros horns in Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and New York over the past week, federal officials said Thursday.
Wade Steffen, one of the alleged suppliers, was arrested in Hico, which is in Hamilton County. He was charged in Los Angeles, federal prosecutors said.
The arrests, initially reported by the Los Angeles Times, were the result of an 18-month investigation that was called "Operation Crash" -- the term for a herd of rhinoceroses -- and scrutinized an international smuggling ring that trafficked in sawed-off rhinoceros horns. The horns are used by some cultures for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or believed medicinal purposes, including cancer.
Court documents reveal that Steffen, a former rodeo cowboy, allegedly bought some of the horns at an auction in Fort Worth. Agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they secretly followed Steffen as he bought the horns in October at an auction in the Will Rogers Coliseum.
It's legal to sell rhino horns to someone in the same state, but agents say Steffen and a California man were selling them overseas at a big profit.
In Southern California, Jimmy Kha, 49; his girlfriend Mai Nguyen, 41; and Kha's 26-year-old son, Felix; were arrested.. Each faces four counts of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species.
The Khas began receiving packages from Steffen and another alleged supplier in 2010. Seventeen packages were opened under federal search warrants and 37 rhinoceros horns were found, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
A search of Steffen's luggage at the Long Beach Airport on Feb. 9 turned up $337,000 in cash. Additional searches by federal agents found rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches. Approximately $1 million in cash was seized and another $1 million seized in gold nuggets, federal officials said.
All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law and all black rhinoceros species are endangered, federal officials said.
"The rhino is an animal of prehistoric origin that is facing possible extinction because of an illegal trade for its horns on the black market that is driven by greed," said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Depatment's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Rhino horns are composed of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails. Rhinoceros horn is a highly valued and sought-after commodity despite the fact that international trade has been largely banned since 1976.
The Three Other Arrests
Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national, was taken into Wednesday night at Los Angeles International Airport, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. . Authorities suspect him of overseeing the shipment of dozens of rhino horns from the U.S. to China.
In New Jersey, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Feb. 18 on a felony trafficking charge after purchasing rhino horns from a New York resident in New Jersey.
Antiques expert David Hausman was charged in U.S. District Court in Manhattan with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction, prosecutors said.
Rock Center with Brian Williams profiled a South African town dehorning rhinos in an attempt to ward off poachers killing the rhinos for their horns:
NBC 5's Scott Gordon contributed to this report.