Busting Cactus Thieves

Weston Phippen: Yevgeny Safronov and the four tourists landed in Los Angeles on a 70-degree dream of a day last May. They were Czechs, Slovaks, and Russians, here on vacation. It was a holiday, so the banks and much of government had closed, but not all of it. For at least six months investigators in federal agencies that watch the nation’s wild lands, its fauna and flora, had also kept eyes on these five foreigners, who would soon drive into the desert, where undercover agents would be waiting. The flight from Moscow had lasted 12 hours. Safronov and the others left their seats, then applied for entry into the U.S.

The investigation began when an agent in Denver found a European website advertising a trip. Written in Slovak, the blog post read: “Already this summer, I began to have ‘cold turkey’––I have not been in the U.S. since last June.” The post was written by the trip’s organizer and the site’s host, Igor Drab, who had planned a camping tour of state and national parks across the American Southwest, starting and ending in Los Angeles. “If anyone among you is interested to join,” Drab wrote, “you must do so as soon as possible.” The investigator alerted Fish & Wildlife Service in El Paso, Texas, and from there the Bureau of Land Management, Customs and Border Protection, even the crisp-brimmed rangers of the National Park Service.

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