Salesperson at Appointment-Only Long Island City Gallery Also Arrested; Other Artifacts Made With Threatened Species Parts Allegedly Recovered; Defendants Face Up To Four Years in Prison if Convicted
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos, joined by Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, announced today that a Long Island City gallery owner and a salesperson for the appointment-only business have been charged with illegally selling a ballerina sculpture made with elephant ivory last month to state undercover investigators for more than $2,500. Elephants are listed as an threatened species and the sale of more than $1,500 worth of products made from elephant ivory without having first obtained a DEC license or permit is a felony.
District Attorney Brown identified the defendants as Ro Gallery owner Robert Rogal, 70, of East 74th Street in Manhattan, and salesman Jaime Villamarin, 45, of South Third Street in Brooklyn. The Ro Gallery is located at 47-15 36th Street in Long Island City, Queens. The two defendants were arraigned late Friday, July 7, 2017, before Queens Criminal Court Judge Toni Cimino on a criminal complaint charging them with two violations of New York's Environmental Conservation Law [ECL 71-0924-3 and ECL 11-0535]. The defendants, who each face up to four years in prison if convicted, were released on their own recognizance and ordered to return to court on August 29, 2017.
"Aggressively cracking down on the illegal market for ivory will help bring an end to the slaughtering of elephants and send a clear message that we will not allow this trade to continue in New York," said DEC Commissioner Seggos. "I commend our Environmental Conservation Officers who uncovered this case and applaud the work of the Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown and his staff for their swift actions in prosecuting these alleged criminals."
District Attorney Brown said, "The arrest of these two individuals should send a strong message that illegally selling artifacts made from the ivory tusks of threatened elephants will not be tolerated in Queens County. Buyers of such items should also be especially cautious and only buy from licensed retailers. Otherwise, they may be indirectly contributing to the extinction of one of the world's most magnificent animals - the elephant."
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo introduced and signed a new law in 2014 that effectively banned the sale of elephant and mammoth ivory and rhinoceros horns, and strengthened the criminal and civil penalties for buyers and sellers whose actions are endangering the elephant populations worldwide. The law allowed for limited exceptions on product, such as antiques demonstrated to be at least 100 years old and containing less than 20 percent of ivory. The adoption of these stricter sanctions was a major step in deterring the ivory trade in the U.S. and protecting this important species.
District Attorney Brown said that, according to the criminal charges, two state DEC investigators working undercover made appointments to visit the Ro Gallery. The first visit was on May 30, 2017, during which the undercover agents met with defendant Villamarin, who allegedly showed them two ballerina sculptures - both allegedly made with ivory. The defendant allegedly stated at that time, "These are ivory, but we don't list them as such because you can't sell ivory." Following this initial visit, one of the undercover investigators followed up via email to the Ro Gallery and was given a specific price for the artwork. District Attorney Brown continued, according to the charges, the investigators returned to the Ro Gallery on June 14, 2017, and at that time met with the owner, defendant Rogal, and paid $2,612 in cash for the ballerina sculpture. During this visit, Rogal showed them another piece - priced at $3,600 - and he allegedly stated "I believe it is ivory" and "they don't even allow the sale of them [ivory]." The investigators left the gallery with the ballerina sculpture and had it examined by an expert who determined the sculpture was made from authentic ivory.
A court-authorized search warrant was executed on the Ro Gallery on Thursday, July 6, 2017, at which time law enforcement officers allegedly recovered several sculptures made with ivory, as well as artifacts believed to be made from the tooth of a sperm whale and the skin of crocodiles. Forensic analysis of these items is pending.
The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 96 elephants are killed every day by poachers for their valuable ivory. Before the enactment of New York's restrictions on elephants ivory sales in 2014, New York City was considered to be the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade in the U.S., worth upwards of $23 billion annually, according to the United Nations.
Results from the 2016 Great Elephant Census show there are only 352,000 African savanna elephants still living - a decline of 30 percent over the last seven years.
For more information on the rules and regulations of ivory sales, visit DEC's website. And to report suspected environmental crimes, call DEC at 844-332-3267.
The investigation was conducted by Lieutenant Jesse Paluch and Investigator Edward Piwko, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, under the supervision of Major Scott Florence.
Assistant District Attorney Charissa Ilardi, of the District Attorney's Economic and Environmental Crimes Bureau, is prosecuting the case with the assistance of paralegals Neyci Cerda and Alexandra Thomson, under the supervision of Assistant District Attorneys Gregory C. Pavlides, Bureau Chief, Christina Hanophy and Kristen A. Kane, Deputy Bureau Chiefs, and Allison P. Wright, Supervisor, and the overall supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations Peter A. Crusco.
It should be noted that criminal charges are merely accusations and that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Note to Editors: E-version of this press release and photos of elephant carvings are posted at www.queensda.org