Hico Rodeo Star Arrested in Rhino Horn Smuggling Ring

Wade Steffen, a champion steer wrestler, was arrested after TSA officials found $337,000 and photos of rhino horns in his carry-on luggage at the Los Angeles airport.

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Wade Steffen, a 32-year-old steer wrestler and camel trainer from Hico, was one of seven people arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly trafficking in rhino horns.

Steffen has been something of an unemployed cowboy for the past year, as he “hasn’t wrestled steers since being attacked by a camel in March,” according to Barry Shlachter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s undercover investigation, nicknamed “Operation Crash” for the term for a group of rhinos, spanned the last eighteen months, according to Kenneth R. Weiss of the Los Angeles Times, who broke the story of the bust last week:

The undercover operation was forced into the open when accused trafficker Wade Steffen of Hico, Texas, and his wife and mother were stopped by Transportation Security Administration officials at Long Beach Airport on Feb. 9 with $337,000 in their carry-on luggage, authorities said. A TSA officer found $20,000 in $100-bill bundles in Molly Steffen’s purse. “That money is not mine,” Molly Steffen said, according to a federal affidavit. “I assume my husband put it in my purse.”

Merrily Steffen, the mother, allowed officers to view the pictures on the memory card of a camera she was carrying, according to the affidavit. It contained images of “stacks of $100 bills bound with rubber bands” and “rhinoceros horns being weighed on scales.”

During their probe, wildlife officials had intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from the Steffen family and the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in live and stuffed exotic animals, court records show. The packages were opened, the horns were identified by scientists and the items were repackaged and sent along to [the workplaces of two alleged conspirators], then presumably smuggled out of the country

The demand for rhino horns, used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and China, is so high that they are “worth more than crack, heroin or gold, pound for pound,” Crawford Allan, the North American director of a World Wildlife Fund program called Traffic that “monitors wildlife trade,” told Weiss. (See photos of some of the evidence seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Steffen was arrested in Texas and is currently in Waco’s Jack Harwell Detention Center awaiting extradition to California, where he will face federal charges for conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, reported Shlachter of the Star-Telegram.

Steffen, the son of a steer wrestler, has won almost a quarter million dollars in rodeos since 2006, according to Shlachter. And, as if this animal story did not already have enough weird, rough edges, after winning $1,500 for steer wrestling in San Antonio last February, Steffen’s promising rodeo career was sidelined when a camel he was training attacked him.

“A camel turned on him and grabbed his arm and started to fling him around like a rag doll,” his wife, Molly Steffen wrote on Facebook, according to Shlachter. “It broke two bones in his left arm, tore two arteries and … some nerves to his hand and fingers.”

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