UK pastor behind worldwide shark smuggling racket

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The Independent Online

A British pastor of the Moonies church faces jail for masterminding a world-wide shark poaching and smuggling racket.

As a result of his illicit trade, many exotic fish fanciers in the UK may be in for a shock. What they bought as an unusual addition to their fish tanks could grow to 7ft long.

Kevin Thompson, 48, from Jarrow, near Newcastle, now based at the Unification church in San Leandro, California, is one of six men arrested for taking, then selling, thousands of undersized leopard sharks.

Investigators says that, at first, Thompson used his church's boat to take teenagers on fishing trips. But then he learned there was a market for the sharks and, in 10 years, netted more than $1m (£505,000).

He paid fishermen $2 or $3 (£1-£1.50) for each baby shark and sold them to dealers for between $20 and $35 (£10-£18). The operation grew so big he stored some at his church. He came under suspicion when dealers he supplied in Florida and Chicago were caught and testified against him. Several hundred sharks were shipped to the UK and some were sold to a company in Hertfordshire. Stephen Maidment, an investigations inspector at the Fish Health Inspectorate in Weymouth, Dorset, traced them to Thompson.

"It was felt it would be cruel to parcel them up and send them back to California to be dumped in the sea, so it was agreed that they'd stay where they were," Mr Maidment said.

Thompson, who has pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, is to be sentenced in the next few weeks. He faces up to eight years in jail and fines of up to $1m.

The hugely lucrative but illegal trade was smashed by a classic FBI sting operation. Special agent Roy Torres called Thompson's home pretending to be a buyer but was told he didn't have any sharks just then. Torres then staked out the house and noticed a church flag in the window.

He checked bank accounts, airline freight documents and church property. He then got search warrants, and weeks later Thompson, John Newberry, 34, also from Newcastle, and four others were arrested and charged in front of a federal grand jury.

One FBI theory is that Thompson was trying to impress his leader, the Rev Sun Myung Moon, who has repeatedly extolled the virtues of fishing and refers to himself as King of the Ocean. Where Jesus referred to "fishers of men", the Rev Moon's church has become a major distributor of raw fish to more than six thousand restaurants in the US.

Thompson, who has been pastor in the Moonies for 14 years, is married to a Japanese woman. They have five children.