A former West Hills resident pleaded guilty today to a federal charge related to an attempt to smuggle the world's largest freshwater fish, a protected South American air-breathing species known as Arapaima gigas.
Isaac Zimerman, a 66-year-old American citizen, was extradited from Mexico in September to face charges contained in a 13-count indictment. Prosecutors said he used his now-defunct company, Hawthorne-based River Wonders LLC, to import Araapaima gigas, which can sometimes grow to 15 feet in length and have been known to leap from the water to catch low-flying birds, along with nearly 900 piranhas and dozens of river stingrays into the United States.
In his plea agreement, Zimerman admitted possessing those fish in California, which were advertised for sale and shipped to customers in states outside of California. The indictment also contained allegations that Zimerman engaged in additional criminal conduct related to the falsification of documents, obstruction of proceedings, false statements and smuggling of protected Arapaima gigas from Peru while on pre-trial release.
River Wonders, which pleaded guilty today through a company officer to an attempt to smuggle 10 Arapaima gigas in March 2010 from Los Angeles to the Bahamas, was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered by U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II to pay a special assessment of $400. Defense attorney Mark Werksman said the company's corporate status would be dissolved within weeks.
Zimerman was apparently selling baby fish at about 10 inches in length for $180 each and shipping them overnight to their destinations in plastic bags with moisture. The judge allowed Zimerman's release from custody, pending a February sentencing hearing, on home confinement and electronic monitoring conditions.
"It's extremely unlikely he would flee," Werksman told the court, adding that his client is likely to be sentenced to time served or a few more months behind bars. Zimerman, who was brought to court chained at the wrists, ankles and waist, and wearing a skullcap, was arrested in March in Mexico and placed "at one of the worst detention facilities in the world" prior to being extradited to the United States, his attorney told Wright.
"You actually pulled a rabbit out of the hat," the judge told Werksman. "I may kick myself on the way home, but I will grant release."
Zimerman was initially charged in 2009, along with his company and his wife. Leonor Catalina Zimerman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense in 2010, and her husband fled the United States that same year after prosecutors filed additional charges alleging that he continued to illegally export fish while on bond, according to federal prosecutors.
Special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tracked Zimerman's movements through Europe, to Israel and eventually to Mexico.
On March 3, concluding a four-year manhunt, Zimerman was arrested near Metepec, Mexico. During his flight to avoid prosecution, Zimerman had changed his appearance and took other steps to avoid detection and arrest, authorities allege.
The Mexican government permitted Zimerman to be extradited to the United States on two of the felony charges related to the illegal exportation of Arapaima gigas. Zimerman faces up to 10 years in federal prison at sentencing, which is set for Feb. 8, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Leonor Zimerman, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to a misdemeanor count of illegal fish trafficking, was sentenced in January 2011 to 21 months of probation and ordered to pay a $1,500 fine. Arapaima gigas are known as fast growers and powerful swimmers that will sometimes jump out of the water to snatch small birds from low hanging tree branches.
In the aquarium they seldom reach over 2 feet, but in the wild, they often get up to about 6 1/2 feet long, with the largest specimen reported to have attained almost 15 feet in length. Because of their large size and appetite for other fish, they are not considered a good choice as a home pet and need to be housed in a very large aquarium or pond.