An African art dealer who prosecutors say was a key figure for elephant ivory smugglers operating in West and central Africa was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in a U.S. prison by a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York.
Victor Gordon, of Philadelphia, had pleaded guilty in 2012 to violating the African Elephant Conservation Act in a case that grew out of a broader investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into African-born ivory smugglers active in the U.S.
Poaching in West and central Africa is particularly widespread and violent, involving the killing of both park rangers and poachers. Sixty-five percent of the region's forest elephants have been slaughtered in the past decade.
Gordon, who paid $150,000 as part of his plea agreement, was involved in what federal judge Kiyo Matsumoto called one of the most egregious incidents in U.S. trafficking history.
Over the course of a decade, she said, Gordon had amassed one of the biggest collections U.S. law enforcement had ever seen. She called his smuggling an "extremely serious offense," noting that encouraging poaching puts rangers in jeopardy and funds criminal gangs operating in Africa.
Prosecutor Darren LaVerne underscored the need to provide a deterrent to traffickers and distinguished the Africans involved with Gordon as largely poor.
Gordon, by contrast, has an estimated net worth of $1.9 million, according to the government.
Despite the high value of their contraband, the techniques used by smugglers involved in the case were rather simple.
One technique was to conceal carved ivory in clay giving the investigation its code name: Operation Scratchoff.
Other smuggling techniques included painting ivory black to appear as ebony wood carvings and staining it brown using potassium permanganate to make it appear antique. Some smuggled ivory was hidden inside musical instruments.
The Quiet Face of Crime
Federal agents seized nearly one ton of ivory valued at more than $800,000 from Gordon's storefront and past customers, a quantity representing scores of dead elephants.
From a run-down storefront selling rough-hewn West African art on a typical Philadelphia street Gordon represents the quiet face of the blood ivory trade.
A man who's never been to Africa, he built his career buying wood and bronze African sculptures out of the back of Ford Econoline vans or the trunks of cars driven by West Africans on selling tours that typically included many large American cities, including New York and Dallas. His goal, he told prosecutors, was to create a museum.
Gordon purchased hundreds of ivory carvings during his career, including massive whole tusks.
One of his suppliers was a West African named Abutu Sherif, whom prosecutors say Gordon contracted to smuggle ivory from Gabon to Philadelphia between 2006 and 2009.
Gordon bought Sherif plane tickets to Gabon, described what he wanted carved, coached Sherif how to alter receipts and to dye the material to make it appear old, and told Sherif not to drive directly from JFK International Airport to Gordon's business.
All of Sherif's ivory came from Gabon, a country that is among the hardest hit in the current poaching crisis.
Today, Judge Matsumoto also imposed a fine on Gordon of $7,500. At least eight West Africans have been prosecuted so far as a result of Operation Scratchoff.
"Elephants are now on the brink of extinction due to poaching and ivory traffickers like Victor Gordon," said Edward Grace, Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement. "This sentence demonstrates our resolve to shut down the U.S. market for elephant ivory and send U.S. traffickers to prison."
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