WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As fish tales go, the one that just unfolded in a Texas courtroom involving a former Palm Beach County entrepreneur was a whopper, featuring an undercover sting, a Japanese corporation, and four large and very ugly fish.
And at the end, the entrepreneur was the one who found himself on the hook.
A federal jury in the town of Lufkin, 120 miles north of Houston, convicted Loren Willis on Thursday of two counts of conspiring to illegally transport fish out of state, according to federal prosecutors. The fish in question: alligator gar, one of the largest freshwater fish in North America.
Willis was the target of a sting when he went out on the Trinity River in Texas in September 2010 to fish out four alligator gar, each about four feet long. The fishing guide who took him out was a paid government informant and another man on the boat was an undercover agent with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said Thomas Burbank, Willis' attorney.
After catching the fish, Willis, 62, drove them in a van from Texas to the home near West Palm Beach where he lived. He kept the primitive-looking fish in a backyard pool for a few weeks, then shipped them to Japan, where a market has apparently developed for "monster fish" — large fish kept in massive display tanks, court records show.
Willis, who now lives in Indiana, could face up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each of his federal convictions. The jury acquitted him of a third count, conspiring to submit a false label for transporting fish, Burbank said.
"It amazes me that the government would spend tens and tens of thousands of dollars on the case for four alligator gar that if you talk to anyone in Texas, they are a nuisance fish," Burbank said.
Alligator gar can live for up to 60 years, growing more than seven feet long. Long considered a "trash fish," their populations have been dwindling of late.
Willis himself inadvertently set the investigation in motion. He repeatedly called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in July 2010, asking questions about fishing alligator gar. He said he planned to ship the fish to a Japanese corporation that wanted monster fish.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said they told Willis he needed to get a state license to fish the alligator gar, federal prosecutors said. Willis never got the license.
The fish ended up spending about three weeks in the backyard pool of Willis' home near Military Trail and Forest Hill Boulevard.
"[Willis] treated them like babies," said neighbor Nancy Berliner, who recalled how he kept a large coffee can of fish food nearby and made sure the water was being circulated.
Willis paid a Miami company — Ornamental Fish Distributors — to ship the alligator gar to Japan. Willis received $15,000 from the Japanese corporation for the fish, court records show.
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