This file photo provided by the U.S attorney’s office in Los Angeles shows turtles that were confiscated Friday, Jan. 7, 2011, at Los Angeles
This file photo provided by the U.S attorney's office in Los Angeles shows turtles that were confiscated Friday, Jan. 7, 2011, at Los Angeles International Airport. Two men, Atsushi Yamagami and Norihide Ushirozako both of Osaka, Japan, were arrested in January 2011 for allegedly smuggling more than 50 live turtles and tortoises into the United States. Yamagami was sentenced Monday, April 30,2012 to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay about $18,000 in fines. (The Associated Press)

The Japan-based leader of a ring that smuggled live turtles and tortoises through Los Angeles International Airport was sentenced Monday to 21 months behind bars.

Atsushi Yamagami, 40, of Osaka, Japan, pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court last year to one felony count of smuggling. He has been in custody for 15 months, leaving six months remaining before he is allowed to return home, U.S. District Judge George H. King said.

Those 15 months in federal detention have been unusually hard on the defendant, defense attorney Kiana Sloan-Hillier told the court Monday.

"He's a very small person and alone," she said, adding that he does not speak English and has had few visitors.

King acknowledged that Yamagami was in jail in the U.S. when the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan a year ago, affecting his wife, children and parents.

"Tragic events happened in Japan - and those circumstances created extraordinary hardship" on his family, the judge said.

Yamagami was arrested in connection with a shipment of 55 turtles and tortoises discovered at Los Angeles International Airport in January 2011, hidden in snack food boxes and packed into a suitcase.

A second man involved in the operation - Norihide Ushirozako, also a Japanese citizen believed to hail from Osaka - was sentenced last August to the nearly seven months he served following his arrest.


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Ushirozako, 50, pleaded guilty to a smuggling charge for carrying the reptiles.

The plan was to sell or trade the turtles and tortoises at a reptile show in Pomona, according to court papers.

King said the smuggling operation had been going on for years. Yamagami, the judge said, had a "leadership role" in the scheme and paid others for their involvement.

Smuggling wildlife "has the potential to spread disease," King said.

The case arose from an undercover investigation dubbed "Operation Flying Turtle" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In July 2010, agents infiltrated the smuggling ring and purchased about 10 protected turtles and tortoises from a person linked to Yamagami, according to prosecutors.

In August 2010, Hiroki Uetsuki, an associate of Yamagami, traveled from Osaka and arrived at Honolulu International Airport. Customs officers then discovered about 42 turtles and tortoises hidden in his checked luggage.

After agents arrested Uetsuki, he told them that Yamagami paid him about 100,000 yen - $1,200 - and his travel expenses to smuggle reptiles into the United States.

He pleaded guilty in federal court in Hawaii to a smuggling charge.

At the time of Ushirozako's arrest, federal agents seized about $18,000, which was forfeited to the government, officials said.

The turtles and tortoises purchased in the undercover operation were all species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty that covers species being threatened by international trade.

Species protected under CITES can be legally traded only if the exporting country issues a permit.

The 55 reptiles seized in the Yamagami case were donated to various educational institutes throughout Southern California, prosecutors said.