Wade Steffen was coming home from Disneyland when everything fell apart. It was February 2012, and he had just loaded his family's bags onto the security scanner at Long Beach Airport. The TSA agent glanced up at the luggage moving through the X-ray machine, then over at the Steffens, who couldn't look more all-American: Wade, with a gap-toothed grin; Molly, a young blonde toting her newborn daughter; and grandma Merrily.
Still, the TSA agents pulled the Steffens out of line and into a security room. Within minutes, the agents were rifling through their bags, pulling out thick rolls of $100 bills: $20,000 in Molly's purse, $120,000 in Merrily's satchel, $120,000 in Wade's duffel, and $70,000 in his computer bag. By the time the agents were done, $337,000 was stacked on a table.
Wade explained that he was a rodeo athlete, and the money was his winnings.
"Lot of drugs come through here," an agent told him.
"I've never done a drug in my life," Wade said.
"It's drug money, isn't it?" another agent asked.
"No," Wade said. "It ain't."
The Steffens were questioned for several hours, and, finding no contraband, the TSA allowed the family to board a flight home. But the agents confiscated the cash, telling Steffen he'd get it back if he could prove it wasn't drug money. Steffen wasn't lying. It didn't come from selling drugs. It came from smuggling rhino horns.
Steffen is no one's idea of an international trafficker of endangered species. When he showed me around his small home in McHenry, Illinois, a year after the incident, he was wearing blue jeans, a black baseball cap, and a plaid western shirt. He has the kind of build that can withstand being thrown from large animals for a living, but he's mild-mannered and cautious. Still, he's become the poster child for one of the largest rhino-horn smuggling rings ever busted in the U.S. In April, Steffen pled guilty to four counts: conspiracy, smuggling, wildlife trafficking, and money laundering. His sentencing is scheduled for this fall. To hear him tell it, though, he's simply a good old boy who got in over his head buying and selling decades-old rhino horns at auction.
"I just didn't see the harm," he told me.
"It's not like I flew to Africa and shot one. I hate poachers as much as anybody."
Today, wildlife trafficking is a $300-billion industry, and one of the most lucrative trades is in rhino horn, which can fetch upwards of $60,000 per pound on the black market. In Asia, particularly in Vietnam and China, rhino horns have become increasingly popular among the nouveau riche and children of the Communist elite for their purported medicinal properties, supposedly curing everything from impotence to cancer. In Vietnamese nightclubs, young men sprinkle the ground powder of rhino horn into their cocktails as a party drug.
With so much money at stake, rhino killings have skyrocketed in South Africa, from 13 in 2007 to more than 650 last year. Three of the five subspecies of rhino are critically endangered, including the black rhinoceros, of which there are only 5,000 left in the wild. At the current rate of poaching, the species could be extinct within 10 years.
But live animals in the bush aren't the only source of horns. Much of the traffic comes from taxidermied rhinoceroses owned by hunters, museums, and collectors. In the U.S., thanks to a long history of trophy hunting, there are tens of thousands of mounts sitting in garages or game rooms.
"There are probably more rhino horns in the U.S. than in any other country outside of Africa or Asia," says Crawford Allan, the senior director of the anti-smuggling organization Traffic. "And rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, whether it was shot 50 years ago or killed five days ago."
In the U.S., those long-dead rhino mounts exist in a legal gray area: When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, it grandfathered in wildlife products like bone carvings, making it legal to own them if you already had them, so long as you didn't buy or sell the item across state lines.
It was in this gray area that Wade Steffen got caught. "You're sitting there watching them sell those horns right out in the open," he said of the auction houses at which he often sold cattle. "If someone had just come up and been like, 'Look, you can't be doin' this stuff, ya know,' I'd have quit cold turkey."
Steffen grew up in a rodeo family and learned to ride when he was three. In high school, he could take down a 500-pound bull in three seconds. By age 17, he had won $20,000 in prizes at local rodeos, and in 2004 and 2006, Steffen finished the rodeo season as the top-ranked steer wrestler on the Great Lakes circuit, a midlevel professional rodeo tour. He did well at the national level, too, rising as high as the 19th-best steer wrestler in the world in 2006.
Steffen was good — but never good enough to be comfortable financially. During his best year, 2006, he earned only around $50,000 in prize money. Like the majority of rodeo cowboys, Steffen supplemented his income as a ranch hand. Many cowboys raise cattle and sell them at animal auctions. Some buy and sell exotic animals at the events, too — everything from buffalo and zebras to monkeys. Exotics are often sold to collectors with vast game farms, and the animals can bring much higher profits. A marmoset can go for as much as $4,800; a baby spider monkey can fetch $10,000.
In February 2011, while Steffen was helping a friend load a male camel into a truck, the animal went on the attack, mashing its powerful jaws down on his left forearm. His friends had to jab the irate beast with a pitchfork to get it to let go. "If it wasn't for them," Steffen says, showing me his scarred and mangled arm, "it would've been ripped off."
The injuries were severe: The camel broke two bones, cut ligaments, and severed the tip of his thumb. Steffen needed three emergency surgeries, and as he lay in his hospital bed, everyt hing felt shattered— his body, his career, his dreams. On top of it all, Steffen had recently dropped his $80-per-month health-insurance plan, because he had never made a claim. He eventually racked up $200,000 in bills. "I'm like, Holy shit!" he recalls. "What am I gonna do now?"
(During their investigation, U.S. agents seized millions of dollars in cash and rhino horns. - Photograph Courtesy of THe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Steffen found the answer at Lolli Brothers Livestock Market, in Macon, Missouri. He had been going to Lolli's since he was a kid, when his dad would sell cattle and horses there. And though Lolli's deals primarily in conventional livestock, it also sells exotics. Rare specimens — some live, others taxidermied — go for tens of thousands of dollars. But nothing sold for as much as the rhinoceros mounts: up to $50,000. (Because of the grandfather clause in the Endangered Species Act, it was legal to sell horns at Lolli's if they were from Missouri and wouldn't be taken out of state.)
It was at Lolli's a few months after his injury that Steffen met Vinh Chuong "Jimmy" Kha and his son Felix. Jimmy Kha, 52, had fled Communist Vietnam in the 1970s and owned a porcelain shop in California, where he sold Buddha statues and jewelry. The Khas told Steffen that they also dealt in rhino horns, and that they wanted as many as they could get — far more than could be found at the auctions. And that's where Steffen fit in. With his aw-shucks likability and desperate need for cash, Steffen seemed the perfect person to find and buy product to send to the Khas in California. "It seemed like a good deal," says Steffen, who was thinking, "I'm not rodeoing. I gotta pay off the bills."
Steffen went on a quest to find horns, scouring specialty sites like taxidermy.net and working with auction houses that had leads to sellers on Craigslist and eBay. The sellers ran the gamut. Some lived in mansions, others in mobile homes. In a few cases, it was an old widow happy to get rid of her late husband's rhino head gathering dust in her basement. Steffen could buy a horn for $30,000, sell it for $60,000 to the Khas, who then sold it for as much as $250,000 to pharmacies or other high-end buyers in Vietnam. One method was to smuggle the horns abroad in packages of cigarettes or chocolates. To Steffen, though, it was just a simple business transaction. "Who cares what you do with them? Put it in your coffee if you want," he told me. "Just pay me, and I'm outta here."
In less than three months, Steffen's medical bills were paid — and the money was still flowing in. By early 2012, Steffen's dealings with the Khas had become routine. In February, he decided to take his family to Southern California. Combining business and pleasure, he picked up $337,000 in cash from the Khas — money to purchase more horns — and when he was done, hit up Disneyland with his clan. But then came the detention at Long Beach Airport. On a rainy morning a few days later in Texas, when Steffen was taking sheep to auction, he was pulled over by federal agents and cuffed. "What the heck is going on?" he said.
At the same time that Steffen was arrested, the Khas were also raided. They were found to have more than $1 million in cash, precious gems, Rolex watches, and luxury cars — all from rhino-horn proceeds. Authorities at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been investigating the Khas and Steffen for at least a year, having been tipped off by a shipping company in California, which reported receiving a suspicious package for delivery to the Khas. When the package was inspected, it was found to contain rhino horns.
Agents from various law enforcement agencies quickly began tracking Steffen and the Khas and set up surveillance of their dealings. In one instance, in 2011, agents observed an associate of the Khas fly from California to Austin to meet with Steffen. The rendezvous lasted for approximately four minutes, and immediately afterward Steffen drove to a FedEx shipping center and sent a package under his wife's name to the Khas. After acquiring a search warrant, agents opened it: Inside were two black-rhino horns. In total, investigators intercepted shipments of at least 18 rhino horns from Steffen to the Khas.
In the end, 150 law enforcement officers were assigned to the overall case, which came to be known as Operation Crash. Sixteen people were arrested in 13 states, including other buyers like Steffen. The bust netted millions of dollars in illegal cash, cars, and jewelry. In September 2012, Jimmy Kha and Felix Kha pled guilty to five felony counts and were sentenced to 42 months and 46 months in prison, respectively. Steffen pled guilty to four felony charges and is facing prison and up to $1.25 million in fines. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to hand over any information he could, and his sentence could be reduced significantly, possibly to just a few months.
To anti-trafficking groups, the light sentences are shocking.
"People think, 'So what, this rhino was killed 50 years ago,' " says Traffic's Allan. "The reality is that the smuggling rings are part of the nastiest, meanest organized crime groups in the world, some of which are financing terror and sex slavery."
Allan says that trafficking in old rhino horns increases the poaching of wild animals because once the product reaches new consumers, it creates more demand. "You may as well be pulling the trigger," he says. "Those historical supplies are eventually going to run dry, and once that happens, with the built-up demand, wild rhinos are doomed."
For the Steffens, that connection was never made. "I was getting all kinds of hate messages on my Facebook saying, 'You murdered animals, somebody should murder your family,' " Molly said when I visited. "It was stuff that was all legally taken as a hunt. I just didn't see any harm."