Franco, 34, was arrested Tuesday in Monterey Park outside Los Angeles on federal smuggling charges after he accepted packages containing three king cobras tightly coiled in potato chip canisters, the Department of Justice said in a statement.
A phone recovered on the scene helped construct the sophistication of the alleged smuggling operation between Franco and Anji, according to a DOJ complaint.
Special agents with the Fish and Wildlife Service had tracked shipments of exotic wildlife to and from Franco and issued a search warrant of his property. On March 2, agents intercepted a shipment from Hong Kong containing three live king cobras, each two feet long, along with three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles.
The agents delivered the turtles to Franco after removing the cobras for safety reasons, then moved in to question and detain him alongside other government officials.
What the agents found inside Franco’s home was a twisted petting zoo of protected species bound for illegal markets, according to authorities. His house held a live baby Morelet’s crocodile, alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle and five diamond back terrapins, according to the affidavit.
The cobras and other reptiles are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement designed to save threatened species from endangerment and illegal trade.
Franco allegedly told authorities he received 20 king cobras in two previous shipments but they arrived dead. It is unclear whether they are among the live cobras Franco had said he would give to a relative, and the lead investigator doubted Franco’s version of events, the complaint said.
Another package, allegedly sent from Franco and bound for Hong Kong, contained six turtles. The Fish and Wildlife agents also intercepted that package.
Text messages sent between Franco and Anji reveal some of the more mundane aspects of their alleged dealings.
Franco used the alias “Carlos Sandoval” on his shipments and sought advice on how to pack the snakes into socks while disarming Anji’s concerns FedEx was vigilant about international shipping.
“FedEx don’t open it,” Franco told Anji in a message. They also discussed how to dodge authorities tracking IP addresses and complained to each other about shipping speeds.
“Sorry friend,” Franco told Anji, apparently in response to a delayed package.
Anji replied: “No!! …U don’t need to say sorry to me…This is the kc [King cobra] and albino soft shell…I should say sorry to u.”
King cobras, with their trademark hoods and piercing hiss, are found in rain forests and plains in India, southern China and Southeast Asia, with a unique ability to stand straight up, according to National Geographic. They are perhaps best known as the preferred choice of snake charmers for this ability, using the movement and shape of flutes to entice the snakes.
The allegations against Franco carry a maximum of 20 years in federal prison, the Justice Department said. Two of the cobras are receiving care at the Los Angeles Zoo. The third died of unknown causes, the LA Times reported.