Sun, Aug 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Cracking the case of the wily and elusive Butterfly Smuggler

Undercover agent Ed Newcomer was assigned to capture one of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's most wanted criminals, but could he earn his trust?

By Helen O'Neill  /  AP, LOS ANGELES

The smell struck undercover agent Ed Newcomer as soon as he entered the small, sparse apartment.

Faint and rancid, it permeated everything. It clung to the plastic containers that piled up in cupboards and on shelves. It seeped from the walls and the bathroom and the bed.

The smell was unmistakable: dead insects.

Inside the suspect grinned expectantly as he opened a container. Dozens of slimy white grubs slithered in the dirt. Another box revealed a dead black beetle the size of a fist, its long rhinoceros-like horn protruding in front.

"Dynastes hercules," the suspect said, his voice high-pitched and shrill.

Newcomer shuddered. But he smiled affably, the wide-eyed neophyte being inducted by the master. It was a role that Newcomer, a special agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, had been perfecting for two weeks.

The suspect opened another box filled with dead butterflies, wings spread in iridescent glory -- golds and greens and shimmering azures.

Like fairy dust, Newcomer thought.

Then he snapped back to reality.

Newcomer's tape recorder had accidentally shut off. His cell phone was broken. His backup agent was lost in traffic. If the backup couldn't make contact soon, he would call the police.

It was Newcomer's first undercover case.

He had won the trust of the world's most notorious butterfly smuggler, a man who made hundreds of thousands of dollars trading in endangered insects. He had been invited into the suspect's home.

Yet if he didn't leave in minutes his cover could be blown.

In the cutthroat world of butterfly poaching, Hisayoshi Kojima was king.

He bragged he was the Indiana Jones of butterfly smugglers, that he commanded a global network of poachers.

From Jamaica he could get the giant swallowtail Papilio homerus, whose velvety black and gold wings are depicted on the country's $1,000 bank note.

From the Philippines he could get the Luzon peacock swallowtail or Papilio chikae.

And from Papua New Guinea he could get what many dealers had never even seen: the prized Queen Alexandra's birdwing.

All are endangered, protected by international and US wildlife laws. It is illegal to catch, kill or import them.

Kojima always found a way.

Legitimate dealers had complained about him for years.

And for years, US Fish and Wildlife agents had investigated him.

But Kojima, a Japanese native who lived in Los Angeles and Kyoto, always eluded capture.

When an informant tipped off agents that Kojima would be attending the annual insect fair at Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in May 2003, Newcomer was put on the case.

The 37-year-old agent knew nothing about butterflies. But he knew the law. And under the law a Queen Alexandra butterfly is as protected as a snow leopard.


Kojima was easy to spot. In the cavernous exhibition hall, where thousands of collectors swarmed among booths filled with everything from gold scarab beetles to red-backed spiders, Kojima ran the busiest stall.

"He's no Indiana Jones," Newcomer thought, sizing up the stocky 53-year-old with the pudgy face, narrow eyes and poor English.

But his butterflies were the finest at the fair.

Newcomer is trim and athletic, with an easygoing manner. He had left behind his gun and his badge. He had assumed a false name. And he had honed his story: how, bored by the business he had inherited from his father, he was looking for a hobby that could also become an investment.

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