Bucks County man sentenced for poaching protected turtles from New Jersey marshes

Pat Loeb
August 29, 2019 - 7:08 pm
Diamondback terrapins.


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Bucks County man will spend six months in jail for poaching endangered diamondback terrapins from New Jersey and selling them online.

At his sentencing hearing Thursday, David Sommers told a federal judge he was sorry for conduct that had embarrassed his coworkers and family.

Among his regrets may have been that he didn't get to cover his own story.

Sommers is a former investigative reporter for the Bucks Country Courier Times. Prosecutors said that from 2011 until agents searched his house in 2017, his turtle-selling business brought in six figures.

Sommers pleaded guilty in February to shipping hatchlings to Canada in a box-marked "books," but prosecutor Joan Burnes outlined a more extensive scheme.

Prosecutor Joan Burnes
Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

She showed pictures and video of Sommers digging up protected terrapin eggs from the Great Bay Boulevard Wildlife Management area in Little Egg Harbor and unloading them at his house. She said the GPS on his car showed he made frequent trips there. 

Burnes recounted an incident in 2017 when he was stopped in the park, after midnight, with a tub full of eggs. He was cited for trespassing and ordered to return the eggs. The next night, he was back in a different car. 

He advertised hatchlings and female adult terrapins on an online site called King Snake, describing them as captive bred. He would ship the hatchlings in Tupperware and adult females in socks secured with duct tape.

When his house was searched that October, the agents found 3,400 hatchlings.

"It wouldn't be possible for a legitimate breeder to maintain the significant number of hatchlings, particularly under those conditions," Burnes said.

Sommers presented an alternate view of his activities when he addressed the judge. He said he was a lifelong animal lover, that he would see wounded terrapins on the road to the shore and took them home to patch them up.

"So I started to breed them," he said, maintaining he would re-release them into the wild or give them away. He would even give turtle demonstrations at local schools.

"I realized I could turn it into a small business," he said. "I thought I could help rescue them while supplementing my income. I realize some of the conduct was illegal."

His two children and four friends all testified that he was an active and involved father and member of the community who had done many kindnesses for others.

Judge Anita Broday said she believed he loves animals but his treatment of the terrapins was inhumane.

"I don't understand why," she said, "except for the economics."

In addition to six months in prison, Sommers will be under house arrest for six months and pay New Jersey restitution of $250,000.