It wasn't the typical smuggling bust at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There was no cocaine or heroin. Just thousands of tiny bulbs in a suitcase on their way to feed a European craze for exotic plants.
But that was enough to charge two men from the Netherlands and a North Carolina man with conspiring to illegally export 12,000 Venus flytraps, a carnivorous plant once in vogue in the United States for its ability to gobble insects.
The plants are a protected species and cannot be exported without a permit. Federal prosecutors in Baltimore say they have broken up a flytrap poaching ring.
"Flytraps are devilishly hard to raise in a nursery, because it takes them a long time to grow," said Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Warren Hamel. "They're very prone to poaching. There's a market for them in Europe and Asia, where they are very popular."
Indicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last week were Ted Allen Minton, a 48-year-old plant nursery owner in Thurmond, N.C., and one of his customers, Gerrard H. Hermans, an exporter from Hillegom in the Netherlands. Each is charged with conspiracy to sell protected plants and falsifying plant identification certificates. Prosecutors allege the conspiracy ran from 1994 to at least until late 1996.
Another resident of the Netherlands, Hendrickus "Hein" Lommerse, has pleaded guilty to attempting to export protected plants. Lommerse was arrested in late 1996 at BWI after carrying two suitcases crammed with flytrap bulbs through a terminal.
A federal indictment charges that Lommerse and Hermans plucked thousands of plants from the wilds around Wilmington, N.C., and then sold them "in the international retail market for a substantial profit." Minton, the indictment alleges, aided the men by falsifying permits and certificates, some of which stated that the flytraps were Christmas ferns.
Lommerse was sentenced to time served. Hermans is in the Netherlands and prosecutors have not determined whether they will try to extradite him to face the charges, which are felonies and carry penalties of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Minton, reached at his plant nursery in North Carolina, said he was surprised to hear from a reporter that he had been indicted.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "I sold Mr. Hermans some ferns that look nothing like flytraps."
He added that he didn't think the case was worthy of a federal investigation. "These aren't things you'd typically smuggle. They're not drugs," Minton said. "We're not talking about a lot of money. You're talking about 2,500 bulbs at 20 cents apiece."
Prosecutors say they don't have an estimate of how much the bulbs sell for in Europe. But American carnivorous plant sellers on the Internet typically advertise prices ranging from $3 for a full-sized regular Venus flytrap to $8 for an "Akai Ryu," or fully matured Red Dragon Venus flytrap.
The plants enjoyed a surge of popularity in the United States when they caught on as a fad in the 1960s and '70s. The plants, which only grow wild in the acidic soils of the coastal plains of the Carolinas, can be grown in terrariums but require much attention.
Jay Miller, manager of Peter Pauls Nurseries carnivorous plant store in Canandaigua, N.Y., said the plants are still fairly popular sellers. But it often takes four to five years for seeds to fully grow, Miller said. "They need a lot of care to grow to maturity. People have always been fascinated by them. It's the idea of a plant consuming another living thing."
Pub Date: 5/05/98