The first of four defendants alleged to have operated an illegal alligator harvesting ring has negotiated a plea bargain with the state to spend three years in prison.

Robert Kelly Albritton, 38, of S.W. Langford Street in Arcadia, signed a plea agreement with the state of Florida under which he agreed to plead guilty to one count each of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and scheming to defraud, plus 13 counts of the illegal killing, possessing or capturing of alligators or alligator eggs. Facing a maximum penalty of 160 years in state prison, he agreed to turn himself in to the DeSoto County Jail by 5 p.m. on April 1, to spend three years in state prison. (Albritton turned himself in at 4:55 p.m. Monday.)

Following his release, he will be under probation for the next 10 years. He will be barred from any professional contact with the three alleged co-conspirators: Robert Beasley and Carl Wayne Pickle Jr. of Arcadia, and David Wentwort Nellis of Punta Gorda. He will be required to pay $82,254.40 in restitution to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, plus $25,417.44 in investigation costs and $2,936.81 in court costs—for which the three co-conspirators would be jointly liable. He will forfeit two boats and four trailers previously seized by the state.

According to the arrest warrant, alligators were once hunted and poached to a point where the species was classified as endangered with risk of extinction. Florida FWC now regulates the collection, possession and transport of alligators and alligator eggs. Operations such as harvesting eggs from nests are supervised and licensed by the state, and detailed reports are required.

In 2013, FWC began to investigate suspected unlawful possession of alligators and eggs. They set up an undercover business, “Sunshine Alligator Farm” in DeSoto County, staffed with undercover FWC agents.

Over the course of the undercover investigation, Albritton reportedly purchased or collected more than 13,000 eggs or hatchlings, which he then delivered to a farm in Louisiana.

The operation is detailed in the 54-page Probable Cause Affidavit. There were numerous harvesting excursions when Albritton and one or more of the alleged co-conspirators went to collect eggs. Although there was a daily limit on the number of eggs that could lawfully be taken, during these trips more eggs were collected than allowed by law.

Under state permits, they were only allowed to look at up to 50 percent of the nests they found; an empty nest had to be counted as one of the 50 percent. But the PCA indicates they routinely examined all of the nests they found and covered up empty nests so they could claim they were in the unopened 50 percent. Because they routinely kept more eggs than were allowed under state law, they were also paying smaller fees to the state than they should have. (The state establishes a payment for the collected eggs, plus an additional $2-per-egg administrative fee.)

The PCA describes egg-collecting trips made to public lands such as the Cecil Webb Wildlife Management Area, as well as private properties such as the 2 X 4 Ranch, Tiger Bay Ranch and Rum Creek Ranch in DeSoto County. The operation included filing false reports understating the number of eggs collected and underpaying the required fees.

The PCA indicates Albritton was “laundering” eggs through the Seminole Tribe by filing documents indicating eggs had been purchased from the tribe, or that an authorized tribe member participated in the collection. Documents filed with the state were sometimes reportedly falsified, for example, signed by the certified biologist that he was present during the examination and collection of eggs from the nests, when in fact he was not there. Many of the eggs were shipped to a business in Louisiana, and Albritton and others were receiving checks from that business.

Charges are still pending against the other three codefendants. The trio are charged with conspiracy to engage in racketeering. In addition, Beasley was charged with six counts of illegally killing, possessing or capturing alligators or eggs, Pickle with four counts, and Nellis with one count along with one count of uttering a forged instrument.

Albritton had not yet been transported to the Department of Corrections as of press time.

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