Man trades tortoise for turtle, gets 6 months in jail
May 25, 2018 | 81° | Check Traffic

New York Times

Man trades tortoise for turtle, gets 6 months in jail

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NEW YORK >> Since he was a child, Shawn Waters has loved every kind of animal, his mother said, but his favorites are turtles and tortoises. He keeps small turtles as pets in their Queens apartment, but he knows his mother would never approve of a large one.

“Hell, no,” his mother, Amy Waters, said in a phone interview Thursday. “I would have a heart attack.”

Besides, Shawn Waters, 37, got in trouble the last time he came in contact with a large tortoise. That episode led to the six-month jail term to which Waters was sentenced Thursday.

The reptile in question was a 95-pound African spurred tortoise named Millenium, the star attraction at Alley Pond Environmental Center, a Queens nature center popular with children. On July 17, someone cut a hole in the fence around his enclosure and snatched him.

According to his mother, Shawn Waters did not steal Millenium, but was approached on the street after the theft by men carrying the mammoth reptile. A deal was made, and Waters led the tortoise away in a shopping cart, she said. Waters did not take Millenium home, perhaps because he was too big for the apartment or because he knew his mother would have been angry.

Either way, he found a way to offload Millenium, a 2 1/2-foot-long, 2-foot-wide behemoth who loves watermelon. A man in Stamford, Connecticut, had placed an advertisement on Craigslist offering to sell a musk turtle. Waters called and offered to swap reptiles, according to the Queens County district attorney’s office.

Without a car, Waters hopped on a Metro-North train to Connecticut with Millenium, who was still riding in the shopping cart, Amy Waters said. Shawn Waters got off at the Fairfield train station, where the man had been waiting. Waters gave him Millenium, who the nature center said was worth $2,500, and the man handed over $300 and the musk turtle, according to the district attorney’s office.

At this point in Millenium’s disappearance, the staff at the Alley Pond Environmental Center had discovered he was gone, noticed the hole in the rear fence of his enclosure and called the police. The news media picked up on the story.

“Who would steal a 90-pound tortoise?” an anchor on WABC-TV in New York said on its newscast one day after the theft. “That is the question the police in Queens are trying to get to the bottom of today.”

Back in Connecticut, Millenium’s new owner started to see all the news coverage about a missing 17-year-old tortoise in Queens. Believing he might have stolen goods, the man called the police.

It did not take long for a detective to get to the bottom of the case. The detective called the number of the man who responded to the Craigslist advertisement, and Shawn Waters answered, the authorities said. Waters told the officer he had traveled to Connecticut with the tortoise to trade him for a musk turtle.

Millenium was returned to his home unharmed.

Waters was charged with fifth-degree criminal possession, a misdemeanor, and he pleaded guilty last month. In the days leading up to his sentencing hearing Tuesday, his mother said, her son tried to make the most of his free time. He recently spent a day exploring sites in Manhattan with his 16-year-old daughter and has been telling his mother not to worry about him when he is in jail.

On Thursday morning, Amy Waters drove her son to court in Queens, but she said she was too upset about the whole ordeal to be in the courtroom for the sentencing. “I know that Shawn is going to be the laughingstock,” Amy Waters said.

A judge sentenced him to six months in jail at Rikers Island. Waters, who lost his job and license as a security guard after his arrest, hopes to get his license back when he is released, his mother said.

About 12 hours after her son started the sentence, Amy Waters said in the phone interview that she was struggling to accept that her son was now sitting in a jail near people accused of violent crimes.

“He’s not a murderer or a drug dealer,” Amy Waters said in an interview. “He’s an animal lover. That’s really his downfall.”

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