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Man Faces Prison For LAX Songbird Smuggling

Update: Kurtis Law was sentenced to six months in home detention, followed by a year behind bars, for smuggling 93 songbirds from Vietnam.

A Fountain Valley man faces a possible federal prison term when he's sentenced Monday for smuggling nearly 100 tiny Asian songbirds -- most of which died in transit -- in his luggage on a flight from Vietnam.

Kurtis Law brought 93 of the colorful birds -- worth an estimated $90,000 on the black market in the Southland -- into the country on March 24.

Investigators who searched his luggage at Los Angeles International Airport determined that the birds were at risk of extinction and protected under the federal Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Prosecutors said the birds were individually wrapped and placed in Law's suitcases under "horrific conditions" in a way "that allowed each bird little or no movement." All but eight of the 93 birds ultimately died.

Federal prosecutors are asking U.S. District Judge Manuel Real to sentence the 50-year-old defendant to two years behind bars and warned of a "heightened risk of recidivism." The defense recommends probation.

"I have made a huge mistake," Law told the court at a hearing last month. "My passion for finding new homes for the birds ... might help explain what I did."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Silber described Law as "a large-scale trafficker in wildlife" who bought and sold protected birds for profit -- birds that risk extinction because of traffickers like the defendant.

"This is a particularly cruel scheme to make money," the prosecutor told the court last month as pictures of the dying or dead birds -- placed into boxes, their wings constricted -- were shown to the judge.

Law's attorney countered that there is no evidence that the defendant was attempting to profit from the birds.

In a letter to the court, Law described himself as "Jane Goodall to the Asian bird world," a reference to the British conservationist known for her support of animal welfare issues. He told Real that his main interest was in protecting the birds and giving them new homes in the United States.

Law pleaded guilty in July to one felony count of importing wildlife contrary to law.

Silber said Law's now-defunct company -- which advertised sales of Asian birds on the internet -- was one of the largest such operations he has seen.

Court documents show that songbirds can be purchased in Southeast Asia for $1 or $2 each and fetch as much as $1,000 apiece in the United States.

The protected birds found in Law's luggage were Bali myna, Chinese hwamei, red-billed leiothrix and silver-eared mesia. Such birds are sold illegally at some Chinese markets in Southern California and are thought to bring good luck.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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