One day in the late summer or early fall, likely during the administration of Governor Pa Ferguson in the 1910s, an alligator snapping turtle hatchling poked his head out of the rubbery eggshell that had been his home for the previous few months. The two-inch creature wriggled out of the sandy bank of a cypress-lined East Texas creek and slipped into the murky water of a small Sabine River tributary, near the Texas-Louisiana border. 

There, Brutus—as he would later be christened—spent his days in solitude. Every day he would rest on the creek bed with his mouth ajar, using his pink, wormlike tongue to lure carp, gar, smaller turtles, and crawfish to stray close to his beak. He also happily scavenged any dead or dying creature—mammals and birds included—that he came across in the water. He remained so still under the surface that over time algae grew on his shell. 

Decades passed. The human population of Texas doubled. Brutus grew to an impressive 171 pounds, but the turtle remained well hidden. The elusive nature of alligator snappers makes them notoriously difficult to find, and that their lifespans “may exceed those of turtle researchers,” according to a study funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, poses additional problems for those interested in studying them. 

In the sixties humans upstream of Brutus built a dam on the Sabine, creating Toledo Bend Reservoir—the largest man-made lake in the South. Brutus waddled on along the muddy creek bed in search of prey and of potential mates. He may have occasionally encountered on the riverbed another enormous beast, this one 165 pounds, who would come to be called Caesar. In the seventies Texas listed the species as threatened, and thus it became illegal to capture the snappers in the state. The population grew relatively robust in number, spreading out across a few dozen counties, primarily in East Texas. 

By the eighties, the reservoir had become a popular area for boating and bass fishing. Around then, Brutus, who rarely broke the surface of the creek, venturing upward only to breathe, might have had to studiously avoid humans for the first time: divers competed every year in a trash festival to clean up the water. Mostly, though, he would wake in the evening, hunt, and then settle into a spot at the bottom of Tenaha Creek to rest, undisturbed. 

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist
Viola Dietz Leckelt circa the 1980s.USFWS

April 26, 2016, figured to be no different. Sometime that afternoon, however, a buffalo fish waltzed in the water in front of Brutus’s beak, tempting him at an odd hour. Ever an opportunistic eater, he chomped down on the fish and suddenly found himself hooked. Brutus was pulled to the surface of the water, and he thrashed as he was grasped on either side of his shell. After a brief struggle, he was hoisted over the gunwale of a small aluminum johnboat, where he laid eyes on three humans. Before him crouched a sturdy woman with dark hair and thick bangs named Viola Dietz Leckelt. Two of her dark-haired sons, half brothers named Travis Leger and Jason Leckelt, perched nearby and helped their mother hustle Brutus into a mesh bag. 

The trio had come to Texas from their homes in Louisiana and Oklahoma to fish for alligator snappers. For two nights they had camped along the banks of the river and stayed up well past 4 a.m. In preparation for the trip, Jason had texted Travis, “Tell momma to bring a few pain meds. We can pay her out of the turtle money or something.” The hunting had been good; they’d caught a dozen or so of the reptiles. 

Back on shore, they piled Brutus and the others into the bed of a gray GMC pickup and drove to Viola’s house outside Sulphur, Louisiana, about thirty minutes east of the Texas border. When they unloaded the turtles, the family posed for a photograph with Brutus on the long gravel driveway. With a ridged carapace and sharp claws, he looked like something from an ancient time, closely resembling his ancestors that first appeared in the Miocene epoch 23 million years ago. Jason and Travis tipped Brutus awkwardly onto his tail, gripping his shell as they squatted behind him. His legs splayed wide and his head aimed skyward. As he was propped in this undignified posture, Brutus’s jaws, powerful enough to snap through human fingers, lolled open, as if he were shocked by his new predicament. 

The family of hunters behind him showed hardly any emotion. They had reeled in hundreds of turtles like Brutus in the past. They expected to reel in hundreds more. 

An aerial view of Toledo Bend Reservoir.

The outdoors and nature’s bounty had long had a hold on the Dietz family. It’s unclear exactly when Dietz relatives first began hunting turtles, but by all accounts they took easily to the bayou when they landed in Louisiana, from Germany by way of Iowa, in the 1890s. Shortly thereafter, two unnamed Dietz men were photographed holding a clutch of furry rodents after a squirrel hunt among the cypress trees. In the 1960s, Roland Dietz, who lived in Evangeline—“the birthplace of Louisiana oil”—domesticated an eighteen-pound bucktoothed nutria, an invasive species, and gave it as a pet to his son Larry James “Colo” Dietz and his daughter Viola. “Mr. and Mrs. Roland Dietz of Evangeline have taken a page from history or perhaps added one by domesticating a NUTRIA,” the Crowley Post Herald reported breathlessly. The family fed “Nuggie” a diet of bread and vegetables and even dug him a swimming hole.

Roland taught his eight children and stepchildren how to live off “the groceries supplied by Mother Earth,” in the words of Mary Land, author of the 1954 classic Louisiana Cookery. He could catch anything, but his main joy was turtles, which he hunted at every opportunity. He sold their meat, too, even advertising in the Crowley paper in 1985: “Loggerhead Turtles for sale. 100 lbs. and less, $1.00 a lb.” (“Loggerhead” is local vernacular for the snappers.) He schooled his children in how to look for disturbances in the mud to determine the best place to set a line to catch an alligator snapper. “She and her daddy would go get ’em with their feet barefooted,” a boyfriend would later recall of Viola’s upbringing. 

Those early lessons informed the rest of Colo’s and Viola’s lives. Viola became a prolific hunter. As an adult, she would head out to Toledo Bend and return with dozens of turtles in mesh bags that she’d lay out in her carport for would-be buyers to inspect. “You’d have to watch where you’d step,” one shopper recalled.

Colo, meanwhile, worked as a roughneck for a time, later drawing Social Security disability checks. He kept a metal pirogue, a canoelike boat, at the dock near his home in Evangeline and preferred to start each morning and end each afternoon on Bayou de Cannes. He used a camcorder to film videos of hunting trips, setting them to a soundtrack of Cajun music. Others would record him too; in a 2013 clip, he reaches into a barrel to pick up nonvenomous water snakes, a cigarette pursed between his lips. As his dachshunds bark at his feet, Colo lets the snakes repeatedly bite his hands and forearms, drawing blood with each strike. “It don’t hurt,” Colo says smiling in the video. The person filming explains: “This man was raised on the river, getting snakebit all his life, catching alligators, turtles, and frogs.”

If Colo got thirsty during a turtle hunt, he’d drink straight from the bayou. He’d keep his catch in a fenced pond on his property until he was ready to dine on it, then he’d move it to a round tub full of clean water for a few days. His home became known throughout Evangeline as a place where you could stop by to purchase fresh seafood and game.

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist
Travis Leger (left), Viola, and Jason Leckelt with Brutus in April 2016.USFWS

Sometimes Colo’s enthusiasm for pursuing game would land him sideways with the law. At seventeen he was arrested after a high-speed chase through the woods for illegal possession of geese and killing over the limit. Six years later he was cited for hunting raccoons illegally and for hunting from a moving vehicle with a light. In 1982, when he was 28, he faced trial for taking deer at night. “Larry J. Dietz and two companions were stopped by Wildlife and Fisheries officials with bloodstains on the floor of his boat,” read an item in the Eunice News. “A mile away, where Dietz landed his boat, three field-dressed deer were found beneath a bridge.” 

The sale of alligator snapping turtle meat was banned in Louisiana in 2004 (and has long been illegal in Texas), but Colo, Viola, and other local sellers had no trouble finding a wide array of buyers for their catches, including a former starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, an auto mechanic, and a local businessman who has since been elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. 

Bayou legend has it that there are seven kinds of meat on an alligator snapping turtle, including turkey, fish, pork, and veal. The way to cook one depends largely on what part of Louisiana you find yourself in. In New Orleans’s Creole cuisine, turtle is most often served in a hearty soup. Cajuns are fond of serving it in a “sauce picante,” a spicy, long-simmering, tomato-based stew. “The fastest way to get someone to a supper around here is to say ‘turtle,’ ” Jimmy Mistretta, a Lake Charles developer and restaurateur who bought Caesar and Brutus from Viola, told me on the back porch of his Lake Charles bar, Loggerheads. “If it’s a turtle supper, everybody’s coming. You just can’t imagine the effect it has on people.”

Enthusiasm for the protein predates the founding of our republic. George Washington attended a turtle feast at New York’s Fraunces Tavern soon after the end of the American Revolution. Terrapin was served at President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball. In 1880 the Washington Post declared it to be “Washington’s favorite delicacy,” writing, “ Stewed terrapin, Maryland style, forms an important part of any Washington dinner laying claim to being a pretentious affair.” 

Alligator snapping turtle meat became the primary ingredient in Campbell’s Turtle Soup (now discontinued) in the sixties, and commercial harvests helped deplete the species’ numbers. One turtle trapper named Steve Denino told a documentarian in the eighties that he had caught as many as eleven turtles in one day. “But today, like I say, they are very scarce here in Louisiana. And when you catch one, you’ve just got something that nobody else has.” 

Alligator snappers are highly vulnerable to overhunting “due to [their] low fecundity, low juvenile survival, long lifespan, and delayed maturity,” Fish and Wildlife biologists, who have been tracking the turtles for years, wrote in a 2021 proposal to list the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—the landmark conservation law that marks its fiftieth anniversary in December. A decision on whether to list the species could come in the next few months, granting the turtles uniform protection across their entire range. 

Current Louisiana law allows residents to catch one alligator snapping turtle a day for personal use, which has brought the species to the brink of extinction in the state. In Texas, however, local protection has afforded the creatures the opportunity to grow in number—a situation that has enticed some Louisianans to cross the border. So in the spring of 2016, Viola and her sons ventured into the Lone Star State, as they had countless times before, to catch a haul. Unbeknownst to them, this time they had landed on the radar of federal wildlife authorities. 

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Jim Stinebaugh in Magnolia, Texas, in 2023.Photograph by Cedric Angeles

Square-jawed and lanky, Jim Stinebaugh has a deliberate and thoughtful presence that served him well as an officer in the Marines. The 49-year-old grew up outside San Antonio in the eighties. From a young age he felt a calling to follow in the footsteps of his father, who spent decades as a state game warden and a special agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife before retiring as head of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s law enforcement division. After graduating from Texas A&M University with a degree in wildlife and fisheries science and serving active duty for four years in the Marines, the younger Stinebaugh joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife as a wildlife inspector in Miami in 2001. 

A fourth-generation Texan, Stinebaugh moved back to the state in 2009 to work out of the Houston office. His first year on the job, he traveled East Texas meeting local game wardens. One day, over lunch, a wildlife official in Jasper County mentioned he had recently been called out to a traffic stop because some men were caught with a pickup truck loaded with alligator snapping turtles, which they were taking from Texas into Louisiana. Stinebaugh’s interest was piqued. He contacted Parks and Wildlife officials in the region, and they agreed that if any local game warden found someone trying to leave the state with alligator snapping turtles, he would be looped in. 

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist

Four years later, on a mild April evening, Stinebaugh was grilling steaks when his cellphone rang. It was a game warden from Sabine County named Sam Smith. Smith explained that he had come across a Louisiana man with a scruffy beard named Joe Guidry who was fishing for turtles in Patroon Creek, on the Texas side of Toledo Bend. Ten adult alligator snapping turtles packed into mesh bags and burlap sacks were stacked in the bed of his truck. Guidry claimed he was trying to take the turtles to a sanctuary in Louisiana. Stinebaugh didn’t buy it, but he quickly devised a plan and urged Smith not to cite Guidry for a state-level wildlife crime. Thus began Operation Snap, a federal investigation. 

A few weeks later, Stinebaugh showed up in Guidry’s front yard in Iota, Louisiana, about three hours from Toledo Bend. An overwhelming odor of decaying meat filled the air around a trailer, and a pack of malnourished, mangy dogs yapped at his feet as he stepped up to knock on the door. After a few moments a woman—Guidry’s girlfriend, it turned out—appeared, shaking with fear and clutching “the biggest butcher knife I’ve ever seen,” Stinebaugh recalled. Once he convinced her that he was not there to get Guidry in trouble, she put the knife down and told Stinebaugh he could come back a few hours later to speak with her boyfriend. 

That evening, in Guidry’s kitchen, Stinebaugh explained that by catching alligator snapping turtles in Texas and attempting to bring them back to Louisiana, Guidry had violated the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law that prohibits the trafficking of illegally taken wildlife. He could face as many as five years in prison and substantial fines. But potential jail time didn’t seem to faze Guidry. “He quickly let me know that he was a small-time turtle collector or salesman or whatever you want to call it, and that there were much bigger players in the area,” Stinebaugh said. 

Those more prolific turtle hunters, Stinebaugh told Guidry, were the ones who really interested him. Stinebaugh reached into his front pocket, where he had placed a bank envelope containing ten crisp hundred-dollar bills, and laid them out on the table. He invited Guidry to come work for the feds as an undercover informant. Guidry immediately began naming other turtle poachers in the area. One, he said, was a man named Colo Dietz. 

Three weeks later, in early June 2013, Guidry showed up at Colo’s trailer in Evangeline with a hidden recording device. Colo, then 59, was working in his garden, shoeless—as he nearly always was. Colo greeted Guidry, an acquaintance, with a question about his recent turtle hunts. The conversation then alternated between discussion of Colo’s tomatoes—the best fertilizer for them, why last year’s crop was better than the current year’s—and alligator snappers. Colo shared that he had buried some turtle eggs in his yard and that his sister Viola’s son Jason had caught some snappers recently at the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, in East Texas. 

Twenty minutes into the conversation, Colo started regaling Guidry with stories of the old days, including one about the time he had borrowed his mother’s “little car,” tied his pirogue on top, and gone fishing for turtles. When he was ready to go home, he draped a tarp over the back seat and loaded it with so many hundred-pound alligator snapping turtles that he blew out the engine’s head gasket. Another time, he told Guidry, the weight of all the turtles he had caught had overwhelmed the brakes. “I tried stopping at a stop sign; it pushed me clean across the main highway. The smoke was flying. Just slid. Couldn’t stop that load,” Colo said. 

Guidry asked him to estimate how many turtles weighing more than one hundred pounds he had caught in Toledo Bend. Without hesitation, Colo answered “five hundred.” “There ain’t nobody gonna ever catch as many turtles as I caught, because you could wipe out all the rest that they’ve got in Louisiana and Texas and never have as much as I caught,” Colo boasted. “That’s all I used to do. Twice a week I’d go.” 

A snapping turle skull with a 22 Caliber bullet hole.
A snapping turtle skull with a .22-caliber bullet hole. Photograph by Cedric Angeles
The Great Cajun Turtle Heist
Limb lines used by Joe Guidry to catch alligator snapping turtles. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

Guidry fished for details about Colo’s poaching expeditions that year. Colo talked about how on one recent trip he had caught sixteen turtles—so many that they almost sunk his canoe. He said he had gone turtling only in Toledo Bend that year but that Viola and his nephew Jason had ventured farther west. Colo had considered that trip too risky. 

Stinebaugh listened along from a nearby hotel room and was encouraged. But after that initial conversation, Guidry declined to record any more talks with Colo, wary of what the poacher might do to him if he found out he was working with the feds. Stinebaugh also soon determined that Colo’s poaching career was entering its twilight, while Viola and two of her sons, Jason and Travis, were much more active turtle hunters. Stinebaugh refocused the
investigation on them. 

A month later he walked the perimeter of Viola’s property, in a rural area of Calcasieu Parish, some 125 miles southeast of Toledo Bend. Viola had several acres of land, featuring three large ponds, which the prior owner had stocked with catfish. The entire property was surrounded by a chain-link fence, and Stinebaugh noticed that any hole a snapping turtle could wriggle out of had been meticulously patched. “It was very clear to me she was keeping things in,” he recounted. 

Viola wasn’t home, and he didn’t yet have a warrant to search her property, but Stinebaugh would later learn from neighbors that after she and her husband, a plumber, divorced in 2009, her finances grew shakier. That’s when she increasingly relied on catching and selling turtles to supplement her income. By 2013 almost every spring and summer weekend she would go turtle fishing in Texas, bring a load back to her home, and keep the creatures in her ponds until they could be sold. When Viola butchered a female turtle and found eggs inside of her, she would bury them in sand until they hatched, then rear the hatchlings in a heated aquarium inside the house until they grew large enough to release into the ponds. 

Stinebaugh set out to catch her in the act of selling turtles and hoped to continue using Guidry as his informant. But that was not to be. Guidry was increasingly beset with chronic back pain and addled by drug addiction. Though always mercurial, he was becoming less reliable. One afternoon in July 2015, Guidry’s girlfriend called Stinebaugh in tears. Guidry had just shot himself in the head in front of her. 

Stinebaugh was shocked, and he felt moved to attend the memorial service, held at a funeral home in Iota. There, Stinebaugh offered his condolences to Guidry’s mother, introducing himself as a friend because of the undercover nature of their relationship. The room was crowded with Guidry’s family and closest pals, who recalled his adventurous life and love of hunting. His obituary, published a week after his death, identified him as “Turtle Man.” 

Without an informant, Stinebaugh had to pursue other investigative avenues. “We just kept plodding along, hoping we’d get a break,” he said. That break came from Peggy Simon, the ex-wife of Viola’s new boyfriend, Rickey Simon. In May 2016 Stinebaugh roamed the halls of a hospital where Peggy worked as an overnight janitor until he found her cleaning. She was happy to talk with him and agreed that  evening to help coordinate a sale with Rickey.

A few days later an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent phoned Rickey for the first time, posing as a turtle buyer. In the first minute of the call, Rickey asked him, “You don’t work for the game warden, do ya?” 

“Say again?” the agent said.

“You don’t work for Wildlife and Fisheries?” Rickey asked. 

“The who?” the agent replied.

“Wildlife and Fisheries,” Rickey said. 

“No, no!” the agent replied. 

Satisfied by this answer, Rickey turned to the details. The agent said he wanted the turtle cleaned and butchered and the shell polished. In a subsequent call, Rickey mentioned that his girlfriend had more than two hundred alligator snappers living in ponds on her property. Days later, he met the undercover agent at a rest area on Interstate 10 in Orange, just across the Texas border, where he sold him a freshly butchered 125-pound turtle, packed into ziplock bags, for $335. When the shell was prepared, the special agent drove to Sulphur to pick it up, paying another $60. These sales were evidence enough for a judge to issue a warrant to search Viola’s place. 

On a muggy late-July day in 2016, a convoy of federal agents drove to Viola’s house and found her watering her plants. Seemingly calm, she continued to do so as Stinebaugh, wearing a police vest, explained that the agents were there to execute a search warrant. “Okay, do what you got to do,” she told him. 

Some thirty minutes later, Viola sat down voluntarily for an interview with Stinebaugh and his boss in her wood-paneled kitchen. Dressed in a black tank top and shorts, Viola had her black hair partly pulled back. Her salt-and-pepper roots peeked through. A tattoo of an alligator snapping turtle was visible on her upper right arm. 

Stinebaugh explained to Viola that he had been surveilling her and her property for three years and that she had sold turtles to people working undercover for him. “We believe that you cooperating with us may be beneficial to you, but, full disclosure, I’m not here to help you. I’m here to build a case, and by cooperating you may help yourself,” he said. 

As she read the search warrant, she blanched when she learned that the federal agents were going to take her turtles. “Y’all are gonna trap and take my turtles?” she asked. A few minutes later, she circled back to this point. “Catch all my turtles and take them out—what are y’all going to do with them?” 

Stinebaugh answered that the turtles would be cared for at a secure location. Viola bristled at this. “I care for my turtles,” she insisted, adding that she fed them chicken as well as buffalo fish, which she caught especially for them. One of her favorite pastimes, she said, was sitting on her back porch and watching them poke their heads out of the water. 

“Well, I’m not alleging that you don’t care for your turtles,” Stinebaugh replied. “I’m alleging that you have exploited them for your own personal gain.” 

It took twenty minutes before Viola inquired about her own fate. “A question for you: Is it me that’s in trouble or my family?” she asked. Stinebaugh replied that she was the primary focus of his investigation but that her sons and boyfriend were also targets. He added that he was aware of her brother, Colo, who claimed to have caught more turtles than anyone alive. Viola took umbrage at this characterization. “Colo caught a lot of turtles, but so did I, back in the day,” she replied. 

Stinebaugh unfurled a map of Texas in front of her and asked her to pinpoint where she had been recently. At first she pointed out lakes she had fished decades ago with Colo. Eventually she pinpointed Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn as recent sites, and she offered to help stop Montaro Williams, another prolific poacher that Guidry had put on Stinebaugh’s radar. She admitted that she had sold two large turtles—Brutus and Caesar—for $1,000 and $500 a piece, respectively, to Jimmy Mistretta, the owner of Loggerheads Bar and Grill. Her turtle sales, she explained, supplemented her monthly income—a $733 Social Security disability check and $39 in food stamps. She seemed to especially regret selling Brutus. “I don’t know why I did it,” she told Stinebaugh through tears. “I love my turtles.” 

Viola’s cooperation pleased Stinebaugh, who told her it could help the species. “I’m passionate about these things too. I don’t know if you can sense it in me. But it matters to me that these things are around for my kids and grandkids to enjoy,” Stinebaugh said. 

Later that afternoon, Viola’s son Travis Leger joined his mother in her kitchen to talk with Stinebaugh. He leered defiantly across the table at the agent, proving far less cooperative than his mother. He denied ever going to Texas to catch loggerheads and said all the reptiles in the ponds were there when they bought the property. “Travis, tell the truth!” Viola admonished him as she left the kitchen halfway through the interview. Rickey, her boyfriend, also denied trafficking the creatures. 

As Stinebaugh interviewed the family, agents combed the house for evidence to collect and photograph. In addition to seizing sixteen firearms, they removed two turtle heads from the freezer, took down seven shells from the walls, and collected “assorted turtle claws” from a bowl on the dresser. Other evidence included dozens of family photos. There was an undated photograph of Viola grinning while holding up a large alligator snapping turtle shell, splattered with blood, as several large hoop nets hung behind her. There was one of Viola perched in the bed of a red pickup truck, holding up an enormous turtle, her young son Jason standing on the ground nearby. In a shot from 2001, Viola kneels upon a 150-pound live snapper that had been placed atop a tree stump. 

Agents seized two live juvenile alligator snapping turtles from a small aquarium in the home’s mudroom. Then, for the next three days, they dragged hoop nets through the outdoor ponds and retrieved 28 more turtles. A dive team from the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office netted an additional 6. They were weighed and tagged, then taken a few hours away to two ponds at the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery. Stinebaugh also went to Loggerheads to reclaim the massive snapping turtles Brutus and Caesar, who had been put on display, still alive, while Mistretta, the owner, waited to butcher them. (Stinebaugh did not pursue charges against Mistretta because the restaurant owner did not know the turtles had been smuggled into the state illegally and had not violated any federal laws.)

As the agents prepared to leave on the search’s final morning, Viola approached Stinebaugh and offered to help him catch the remaining turtles in the pond. She also asked if she could come help care for the turtles. She never got the chance. Two days later, before Stinebaugh could sift through the evidence collected in the search, Travis called 911 and said Viola had dialed him and was suicidal. He said she’d told him that she was by a graveyard two miles from their home and that by the time he got there it would be too late. The local sheriff’s deputies found her truck parked beside the nearby Baptist church and her body crumpled on the ground in the cemetery. She had been shot in the chest with a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun, bought by Travis in 2007. 

A deputy discovered a note scrawled inside a spiral notebook in her truck. “What I told you wildlife gents was true. I am Riding [sic] this to say I’m doing this to myself because I don’t want to go to prison,” the note read. “Please take all charges on me only please. . . . This is my decision.” 

The Calcasieu Parish coroner ruled her death a suicide, and the sheriff’s office agreed. 

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist
Toledo Bend Reservoir.Photograph by Cedric Angeles

Through phone records, Facebook posts, undercover recordings, and other evidence discovered at Viola’s home, Stinebaugh was able to weave a narrative showing how the family had trafficked turtles from Texas to Louisiana. A federal grand jury indicted Viola’s sons Travis and Jason and her boyfriend Rickey Simon in April 2017, charging them with conspiring to violate the Lacey Act.

The defendants pleaded guilty and appeared in court in Beaumont that
December for sentencing. At the outset of the hearing, Joe Batte, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, had an announcement. “Your Honor, we’re going to have some turtles downstairs to look at after this.” 

“To eat or to look at?” the judge, Marcia Crone, quipped.

“To look at, Your Honor. That’d be a lot of turtle soup.”

In their pleadings, the brothers and Rickey acknowledged they had trafficked 64 turtles between April and June of 2016. Travis, wearing a black-and-white prison uniform and orange Crocs, had his lawyer ask the judge for leniency; he was deeply affected by his mother’s suicide and had a four-month-old baby he had yet to meet. “He is the only one of the three defendants who has agreed to forfeit the turtles,” his attorney said. 

Crone was unmoved. “Well, he doesn’t really own the turtles because he took them unlawfully. So I’m not really impressed by that,” she said, before sentencing him to the maximum penalty: 21 months in federal prison followed by three years of parole. Crone then sentenced Jason to 16 months in prison, also the maximum, citing his long criminal history, which included noodling—the practice, then illegal in Louisiana, of catching catfish with your bare hands. “He’s a threat to wildlife,” she said. The judge was more lenient with Rickey, who has heart problems, and gave him three years of probation on one count of the indictment. 

After the sentencing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees unloaded Brutus and Caesar from plastic tubs they’d hauled in on a trailer and set them down on a packing blanket in front of the grand Tuscan columns outside the U.S. attorney’s office in Beaumont. Behind the turtles stood a podium and a table where lacquered turtle shells, affixed with evidence tags, had been placed. The hulking turtles were the star attractions at a press conference heralding the success of the case. But just eleven minutes into the event, Brutus apparently got impatient. He began lumbering off toward the parking lot soon after an agent handed the podium over to a Texas game warden. “Brutus is getting away, y’all. Watch out!” someone exclaimed as the turtle’s long claws scratched the pavement. Stinebaugh and another wildlife official scrambled over and picked him up and returned him to the blanket.

In that one morning, the Dietzes saw the end of a century-old family tradition: “My grandpa lived off the land, and my dad lived off the land,” Colo’s youngest son, L. J. Dietz, told me over a bowl of chicken-and-sausage gumbo at a restaurant in Jennings, Louisiana, this past January. “If the laws were still the same, I’d still be living that way. I would love to raise my kids that way, in the country, catching turtles.”

The sentencing was not the final blow to the Dietz family, however. Seven months later, in July 2018, Colo, who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, died at age 64. He was buried alongside Viola in Iota, where a small snapping turtle statue rests on his grave. L. J. built a shrine to his father in the corner of his shop, complete with ceramic ducks, a picture of a deer, several shell casings, a whiskey jug, and two preserved alligator snapping turtle heads. “Miss you till my chest hurts,” he wrote on Facebook.

Though Stinebaugh had been trying for years to stop the family’s turtle poaching, he found much to admire in Colo. “He was almost like a man plucked out of the past, a Cajun from one hundred and fifty years ago,” Stinebaugh said. “A lot of people try to pretend that ‘I’m this Cajun living the life in the swamp,’ but this guy really did. There’s a certain authenticity there that’s hard to find.”

As Leger and Leckelt entered prison, the turtles seized in the case were also adapting to a new life in captivity. At the Natchitoches hatchery, the creatures lived a life of leisure, eating a diet of bream, catfish, and carp. Their two ponds had been retrofitted to accommodate them and were surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that was angled inward, to keep the wily reptiles from escaping. Within a few years, two clutches of eggs had hatched at the fishery, and the hatchlings lived in fiberglass tanks and were fed bloodworms, pellets of turtle food, and chunks of fish. 

In 2021, the adult turtles and many of the hatchlings were prepared for release into the wild. The hatchery ponds were drained with a turn of the handle, and a team of staff and volunteers began catching turtles at first light on a warm Monday morning in June. They netted 24, and a veterinarian spent the day assessing the health of each one. Brutus was whisked away to another location before anyone could photograph him—Stinebaugh planned to offer him for sale to a potential buyer in China in a sting operation. But Caesar was dead. His bare skull was found in the muck of the pond. His shell had already decomposed and fallen apart. 

Scientists arrived at 3:30 a.m. the next morning and loaded the turtles, which had geolocating devices affixed to their shells, into burlap sacks. They fastened the bags with zip ties before wetting them down with a hose and packing them into trucks for delivery to three release sites. The caravan set out at 5:30 a.m. under an easy, steady rain, and one convoy reached the north end of Toledo Bend Reservoir shortly after 7 a.m. The turtles were then loaded into all-terrain carts and driven into the swamp. Stinebaugh had the honor of releasing a hatchling near a bridge. He set it down at the water’s edge and gave it a nudge. “This is what East Texas is supposed to look like. These turtles hit the jackpot,” Stinebaugh said as the creature paddled into the green muck, surrounded by cypress trees. The turtle paused for a moment, turning around to look back at the scientists and officials, before slipping noiselessly into the water. 

Brutus was soon released too, when Stinebaugh’s deal with the Chinese buyer fell through. Two weeks later, biologists set out to patrol the swamp, locating the reptiles using radio transmitters. Shortly after they launched in a lime-green kayak, the crew spotted a hulking turtle floating in the swamp—unusual behavior for a live creature. His head was bloated, and as they approached they could see bite marks on his arms and the front of his shell. It was Brutus.

His body was too heavy to tow behind the boat, so one of the scientists got into the water and dragged it to shore. The biologists determined he was likely killed by a territorial male turtle who patrolled that portion of the bank. 

In the end, Brutus died not far from where he had hatched a century ago—no longer an apex predator, in a swamp he no longer knew as home.  

Sonia Smith is a writer living in Dallas.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Great Cajun Turtle Heist.” Subscribe today.