A South Korean national who once ran a Vista nursery and is charged with attempting to illegally export thousands of lotus-like California succulents to Asia has plead guilty.
Byungsu Kim, 46, and two accomplices pulled the Dudleya plants, worth more than $600,000, out of the ground at remote state parks.
Kim, after his extradition to Los Angeles, entered the plea to a charge of attempting to export plants taken in violation of state law.
The count carries a sentence of up to five years behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to his plea agreement, on Oct. 11, 2018, Kim and the other suspects traveled by car from Los Angeles International Airport to Crescent City.
For three days, they harvested numerous plants from DeMartin State Beach in Klamath,, and from Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Eleven days later, Kim and his co-defendants traveled from Northern California to a nursery in Vista to unload the poached plants.
The following day, the men traveled to Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino County. Wearing backpacks and using hand-held radios to communicate, they pulled additional Dudleya plants out of the ground before returning once again to the Vista nursery.
Prior to the plants’ shipment, Kim scheduled an inspection with a county agriculture official in Vista and falsely told her the government-issued certificate necessary for the plants’ export should list 1,397 Dudleya plants for deliverty to South Korea.
He also claimed that the “place of origin” of the plants was San Diego County.
The defendants then transported the plants to a commercial exporter in Compton, to whom Kim intended to present the fraudulently obtained certificate so the plants could be smuggled to South Korea.
When the defendants left, local law enforcement executed a search warrant at the shipping company and found more than 3,000 Dudleya plants in boxes labeled “Rush” and “Live Plants.”
In his agreement, Kim admitted he knew taking the Dudleya plants was unlawful and that he had conducted Internet searches on his smartphone for “poaching succulents” and “dudleya.”
He also said he had read a press release regarding the arrest and convictions of three other Dudleya poachers.
He admitted that at the time he and his accomplices engaged in the illegal conduct, they did not have a scientific permit nor a federal permit that would allow them to harvest Dudleya plants. He also admitted to being the ringleader of the scheme.
Although California law enforcement officials had confiscated Kim’s passport following his arrest on state charges relating to his October 2018 conduct, Kim fraudulently obtained a new South Korean passport in January 2019.
He falsely claiming to the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles that he had lost his passport.
Four months later, after Kim learned of the federal criminal charges pending against him, he and co-defendant Youngin Back fled to Mexico on foot through the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing.
Using his fraudulently obtained passport, Kim then flew with Back from Mexico to China, and then from China to South Korea.
Kim was arrested in South Africa in October 2019 for charges related to a similar scheme in which he illegally collected plants from protected areas in that nation to export to South Korea.
Kim pleaded guilty to the criminal charges in South Africa. He was extradited to the U.S. in October 2020 and has remained in federal custody.
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu has scheduled a Jan. 13 sentencing hearing.
Co-defendant Bong Jun Kim pleaded guilty in July 2019 to one count of attempting to export plants taken in violation of state law. He served four months and was released in October 2019 after Wu imposed a sentence of time served.
Back remains a fugitive, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
– City News Service