Doctor busted for ivory smuggling

Sperm Whale tooth scrimshaw 1831 CE

by Mike Donoghue

BURLINGTON — A former Concord, Mass. doctor is facing federal charges in Vermont for unlawfully trying to import  endangered species, including valuable ivory carvings made from both a walrus tusk and Sperm Whale teeth more than two years ago, federal court records in Burlington show.

Dr. Pedro Huertas, 69, now of Pasadena, Calif. is due for arraignment in U.S. District Court in Burlington this week, officials said.

A proposed plea bargain, which includes Dr. Huertas pleading guilty to one of two charges and paying a $50,000 fine, is on the table, according to court papers filed by his defense lawyer, Mark Kaplan of Burlington. 

The prosecution also has agreed to drop his wife, Rebecca Huertas, 69, from the criminal case, court records show. She had been named in the initial two-count criminal complaint filed in federal court for a July 25, 2021 incident in Franklin County, records show.

“I am embarrassed and humiliated that I will have to report this event to two Boards of Registration in Medicine (California and Massachusetts).  I also regret deeply  that I placed my wife’s license to practice law at risk,” Dr. Huertas said in a two-page letter filed with the federal court last week.

Reached by phone by Vermont News First on Sunday, Dr. Huertas declined comment on the prosecution, saying he is trying to minimize the news coverage of his court case.

Dr. and Mrs. Huertas over several months provided at least three sets of certificates of authenticity from Images Boreales Gallery in Montreal signed by Imene Mansour including one that indicated a carving of kayakers was done by an artist, Lukie Airut, with a date of 1968, according to a court affidavit by Special Agent Eric Holmes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Vermont.  Holmes said the other certificate from Images Boreales and signed by Mansour claimed the three Tupilaks were from Nunavut Canada with a “date carved” as the “early 1960s.”

Canadian Environmental investigators eventually interviewed Mansour on behalf of the USFWS agents on Jan. 11, 2022 and she admitted to creating the documents at the request of Pedro Huertas with dates to show he and his wife had bought items from the 1960s, Holmes said in his 9-page affidavit.

The following day, Dr. Huertas called the USFWS and admitted he did not declare the walrus piece to Customs and Border Protection Officers because he knew it was not “compliant” with endangered species law, Holmes wrote.

The doctor also said he was “mortified and ashamed” of the fraud he attempted to carry out, Holmes said.

Huertas said in his letter to the court in Burlington he was born in Chile and as a 20-year-old medical student he “disappeared” after failing to back the country’s dictator.  He said he later spent 15 months in various concentration camps before he arrived in the U.S. through a program sponsored by U.S. State Department and created by former Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.

Huertas said he obtained his masters in biochemistry at Stanford University and then transferred to Harvard, where he finished his PhD and completed a medical degree in 1993 from a joint program between Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

He said he trained in internal medicine and rheumatology initially and later in palliative care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.   He said he was involved in community service, including the Lions Club, Rotary Club and, while in Boston, helping at The Family Van, a program of the Harvard Medical School that provides free health screenings in the community.

The father of two sons and two stepdaughters, Dr. Huertas was appointed in August 2022 to serve in California with Kriya Therapeutics Inc., as its the Chief Medical Officer of its Rare Disease Division, the company said in a news release at the time.  He jumped to AceLink Therapeutics Inc. in Newark, Calif as chief medical officer in May, a news release said.

Pedro and Rebecca Huertas arrived at the Highgate Springs Port of Entry from Quebec and were interviewed by Customs and Border Protection Officer Stephanie Meno on July 25, 2021.  They claimed they had a stone statue worth $2,000, but said little else and stopped talking when some sealed packages with bubble wrap were found in the trunk of their car, records show.  They were directed to CBPO Officer Taylor Nielsen for a secondary inspection.

The inspection uncovered several items including four wildlife ivory carvings and five stone sculptures, records show.  Dr. Huertas first said they were “ivory,” but quickly changed to “walrus tusk,” court records show.

Mrs. Huertas provided multiple certificates of authenticity on letterhead from a shop in Montreal, court records show.  They were returned to her after being copied and the couple was eventually released, but the ivory carvings were still held by federal authorities, court records show.  The ivory items were later turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for a deeper investigation.

An initial examination showed the carvings appeared to be made from walrus ivory, according to Holmes.  Once they got to the USFWS National Forensics Laboratory an expert determined three were actually from sperm whale teeth and one was made from walrus ivory, Holmes said.

The USFWS office in Hadley, Mass. said it received a letter dated July 29, 2021 from Dr. and Mrs. Huertas asking for the return of the four ivory sculptures that were seized.  Dr. and Mrs. Huertas claimed they were told the Montreal shop maintained the carvings were done before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species took effect July 1, 1975.

The documents mailed by Dr. and Mrs. Huertas to USFWS had multiple differences from the ones submitted four days earlier to customs officials at the international crossing in Vermont, Holmes said in a sworn affidavit.

USFWS received another letter from Dr. Huertas on Aug. 24, 2021 with new claims and dates from Imene Mansour and a petition for remission of the seized items signed by Dr. and Mrs. Huertas, Holmes wrote.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent went to the California home of Dr. and Mrs. Huertas on Jan. 11, 2022 to review the documents that had been submitted.  The doctor provided seven documents and he and his wife maintained they were the same ones provided at Highgate Springs to CBP on July 25, 2021.

That was the same day Canadian Environmental investigators interviewed Mansour in Montreal and she admitted to creating the false documents at the request of Pedro Huertas, according to Holmes.

The next day Dr. Huertas started to come clean, Holmes wrote.

Kaplan filed a motion last week asking Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford to forgo ordering a presentence investigation report by the U.S. Probation Office and to proceed right to sentencing this week.  The federal sentencing guidelines call for a penalty of 6-to-12 months in prison, but Kaplan hopes to get it down to zero to 6 months so the judge can waive prison time.

“The parties have agreed … that the appropriate remedy is for Dr. Huertas to pay a fine of $50,000 and a sentence of time served,” Kaplan wrote.

Court records indicate the doctor was never jailed when caught.

Categories: Crime

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