Miami-Dade County

Giant turtle skull for sale leads to South Florida police raid

John Hazzard, shown in a picture included in a search warrant filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court by state wildlife investigators.
John Hazzard, shown in a picture included in a search warrant filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court by state wildlife investigators. Instagram

A South Miami-Dade angler named John Hazzard first caught the attention of state police after he posted Instagram photos of himself frolicking with turtles and gators in the wild.

But it was an attempt to sell a giant sea turtle skull — through the online app called OfferUp — that led a Miami-Dade judge to authorize a raid on his home, court documents show.

Wildlife investigators last month seized two suspected sea turtle skulls and two shells, all illegal to possess under Florida law. Hazzard has not been charged as agents examine computers and electronic files also seized from his home.

The 30-year-old, who works as a poultry buyer for a distributor in Miami, according to his online LinkedIn profile, responded only with a short email to repeated requests for comment.

“Unfortunately I’m not really so sure why this happened myself but I cannot discuss this matter until my attorney gives me the OK,” Hazzard wrote in the email.

A search warrant filed in Miami-Dade circuit court shows he is being investigated for potential crimes related to feeding, capturing and molesting alligators, as well as possessing and offering to sell marine turtle parts. The warrant doesn’t spell out how Hazzard may have obtained the shells and skulls.

Under Florida law, anyone who “offers to sell” turtle species or “parts thereof” is guilty of a third-degree felony.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating the cases, also declined to comment.

“This investigation is still ongoing at this time, and we are unable to release information,” said FWC spokesman Robert Klepper.

This is not the first time the wildlife authorities have gone after people posing with endangered animals. In March, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested a Miami man who was shown on a YouTube photo holding two panther kittens.

Replicas of animal skulls are often sold as art — fake turtle skulls can be purchased through any number of online merchants. Real skulls and shells of sea turtles can only be legally possessed in Florida with an educational permit, said Ron Magill, a wildlife expert from Zoo Miami.

And there is a black market for them, said Magill, who is not involved in the case.

“There is a big difference between someone taking a skull or a shell that washed up on the beach and someone who starts selling them,” Magill said. “When you start seeing someone selling those online, that’s someone that should know better.”

FWC began investigating Hazzard in January, when an investigator viewed a video of him apparently taking a lobster from a submerged ladder that had become “artificial habitat.” That practice, though still common in South Florida waters, is technically against the law.

Other images of Hazzard appeared to show him holding an Atlantic Loggerhead turtle in one post, a Hawksbill turtle in another.

In another photo, according to the warrant, Hazzard is holding a baby gator apparently taken from the Chekika zone of Everglades National Park. The same gator — which Hazzard dubbed “Schmegal,” an apparent ode to a character in “The Lord of the Rings” books — is later depicted in a fish tank, in a home pool and at a table next to a bottle of Miller Lite.

Then in March, investigators learned that Hazzard had posted a turtle skull for sale on OfferUp, asking $125.

Officer Christian Rodriguez posed as a potential buyer, arranging to meet up to buy the item. But ultimately, Hazzard stopped responding to messages and the deal was never completed, according to the warrant.