BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A coastal Georgia man caught stealing 84 sea turtle eggs while he was on probation for an earlier conviction of the same crime was sentenced Wednesday to return to federal prison — for roughly one week for each egg he took.
Lewis Jackson, 61, offered no explanation for why he returned over the summer to remote Sapelo Island to swipe eggs from the nests of loggerhead sea turtles. Loggerheads are a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"I made a bad mistake," Jackson told a U.S. District Court judge in a voice that was barely audible in the courtroom. "... I just ask the court to have mercy. That's about all I can say."
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood noted she and Jackson aren't strangers. She had previously sentenced him in April 2013 to six months in prison for committing the same offense on the beaches of the same island.
This time Wood ordered Jackson imprisoned for 21 months. Perhaps coincidentally, that's a month for every four eggs he took.
"You have squandered your chance of leniency," the judge told Jackson.
Thefts of sea turtle eggs appear to be fairly rare on U.S. beaches where the animals nest from the Carolinas to Florida and across the Gulf Coast to Texas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to provide precise numbers. Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the agency's southeast region, estimated that egg thefts are reported less than once per year.
Myths — originating among fishermen — that consuming sea turtle eggs improves sexual performance fuel a black market for the eggs in Caribbean countries, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., said David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based sea turtle conservancy. The eggs are often sold at bars, where they're swallowed with shots of alcohol.
Federal authorities in Jackson's case estimated the sea turtle eggs he stole were worth $25 apiece. In a similar case in Florida last year, authorities ball-parked their value at $3 to $5 per egg.
During his sentencing hearing, Jackson never said what he planned to with the eggs he had boiled with cayenne pepper. When a wildlife volunteer discovered eggs missing from a marked nest on Sapelo Island, authorities with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources immediately suspected Jackson because of his prior offense.
He was arrested July 7 at the island's ferry dock carrying a cooler. The eggs were inside, sealed in plastic bags, just as Jackson had tried to smuggle them in his prior offense. He pleaded guilty after each arrest.
Prosecutor Greg Gilluly said Jackson had used cocaine in May and July not long before the egg thefts. He also said Jackson had convictions going back roughly 20 years for crimes including stalking, battery, drugs and theft.
Jackson's defense attorney, James Yancey Jr., told the judge his client has a 2-year-old daughter he often cares for while her mother works as a Burger King assistant manager. Sandra Woodson, who was pregnant during Jackson's first offense, told the judge their daughter misses her father terribly. Asked about her own relationship with Jackson, Woodson replied: "He's my baby sitter."
Jackson has health problems, according to his defense attorney, and suffered a stroke years ago that left him unable to work. Gilluly noted that Jackson's ailments include an allergy to seafood.
This story has been corrected to show Jackson's age is 61, not 60.