ST. LOUIS -- The former operator of an exotic animal farm in Fort Gibson, Okla., pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally selling two federally protected tigers and three leopards. Stoney Ray Elam, 55, will be sentenced on the felony charges Nov. 7.
He was one of five people indicted in November following an undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service alleged a group of residents and small business owners in the Midwest bought and killed exotic tigers, leopards, snow leopards, lions, mountain lions, cougars, mixed breed cats and black bears with the intention of introducing meat and skins into the lucrative animal parts trade.
In February, Todd Lantz, 39, of Cape Girardeau, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell an endangered species illegally. His wife, Vicki Lantz, 40, pleaded guilty to assisting in the sale. Freddy Wilmoth of Gentry, Ark., pleaded guilty to illegally transporting the big cats for the sale to the Cape Girardeau couple.
All three face sentencing May 20.
Elam was the former owner of Power House Wildlife Sanctuary. In June 1998, Elam met with an undercover federal agent posing as an exotic animal dealer near a highway rest stop in New Florence, Mo. Elam sold the cats to the agent for $4,800, then falsified U.S. Department of Agriculture forms declaring the illegal sale to be a donation, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Another indictment accuses Timothy Rivers, owner of Animals in Motion in Citra, Fla., of illegally selling two leopards in 1998.
Top dollar paid
Hides, meat, skulls and teeth of tigers, leopards and other big cats can fetch $5,000 to $20,000 from collectors, wildlife officials say. Tiger bones, worth up to $250 a pound, primarily go to people who practice traditional Chinese medicine, both overseas and in major U.S. cities.
Possessing big cats violates no federal law, but killing the animals is prohibited.