Two managers of a popular Asian grocery in Merrifield pleaded guilty to charges related to the illegal sale of wildlife Tuesday as part of a deal that ended a strange case that pitted culture against conservation.
Kai Wei Jin tentatively pleaded guilty to a single count of misdemeanor unlawful sale of wildlife, while Jinmiao Xia pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of violating state game and fishery regulations in Fairfax County Circuit Court.
Both will have to donate $2,000 to a game protection fund and pay $344 in restitution to the state.
In exchange for the pleas, a Fairfax County prosecutor dropped three other misdemeanor charges of illegal sale of wildlife against each defendant. In addition, the state agreed to delay Jin’s sentencing for a year and drop the conviction if he maintains good behavior.
A judge has scheduled a follow up hearing in July on legal issues surrounding Jin’s plea, which could result in changes to its terms.
The charges stemmed from an unusual undercover sting against the Great Wall Supermarket, one of the area’s largest international grocery stores.
Beginning in March 2011, state game officers made a handful of undercover buys of live largemouth bass, red-eared slider turtles, American bullfrogs and other animals from Great Wall’s seafood counter.
An officer later warned the store managers it was illegal to sell the animals under a state anti-poaching law. Under the law, the animals are defined as wildlife and therefore can’t be sold. The aim of the law is protect wild populations from over hunting and fishing and keep non-native species from escaping and invading local habits.
Warrants were eventually issued for Jin and Xia’s arrest and they were initially charged with four felonies each, but those charges were reduced to misdemeanors this year.
Attorneys for the managers argued all the animals on sale were farm-raised, so the sales had no impact on wild populations. They also said in interviews there was a larger issue: the law essentially criminalized the diets of Virginia’s growing Asian populations.
Attorney John E. Carter said it’s an issue he would like addressed.
“I’m going to talk to folks in the General Assembly about a change in the law,” Carter said Tuesday.