Tahoe man acted as 'middleman' in international amphibian smuggling ring: Feds

Several of the newts seized via search warrant from Laughlin’s residence: Eastern District of California of the United States Attorneys Office.

A Northern California man has pleaded guilty for his part in an international amphibian smuggling ring, federal authorities said. 

Tahoe City resident Andrew Laughlin pleaded guilty on Monday to acting as a middleman in an international amphibian smuggling ring where he would find and possess "hard-to-find newts," according to officers with the Department of Justice. 

The 47-year-old admitted to an undercover agent that he shipped or received amphibians in packages purposely mislabeled as "toy cars, rubber toys," or "ceramic art pieces" when they actually contained animals like Eastern Box turtles, spotted turtles, fire belly newts, Asian warty newts, or newts local to California. 

When federal investigators searched Laughlin's home, they found at least 81 live newts, with some testing positive for "Bd," a poisonous fungus that has caused major population declines for certain species, including some presumed to be extinct, according to scientists.

Some of the newts were injurious species, meaning if they were exposed to the country's ecosystems, they could harm agriculture, wildlife, forestry, or humans, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Laughlin will be sentenced on Oct. 7, and under his plea agreement, one of the requirements he will have to follow is undertaking a public education campaign about the harms of illegal amphibian trafficking at his store, federal authorities said.