By the 1990s illegal reptiles were pouring into the U.S. Prices were skyrocketing—$20,000 or more for a rare tortoise or a Komodo dragon. Reptiles smuggle well: They're small (at least as babies), durable, and with cold-blooded metabolisms, can go for long periods without food or water. Valuable and portable, reptiles were the diamonds of wildlife trafficking.
Informants had been raising Anson Wong's name for years, and Ops suspected he was the global kingpin of the illegal reptile trade. Anson was already wanted in the U.S. for smuggling rare reptiles to a Florida dealer in the late 1980s. He was said to be acutely aware of his status as an outlaw. There would be no "stinging" Anson Wong, no tricking him with a onetime transaction in a hotel room or catching him personally bringing reptiles through an airport. To get him, Ops would have to come up with something clever.
Special Agent Morrison—six foot five, a lifelong hunter, the son of a lawyer—was given the lead. He and his boss, Special Agent Rick Leach, leased a unit in a business complex outside San Francisco, not far from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons facility. They filled their new wholesale enterprise, called Pac Rim, with the only saleable merchandise they had, a truckload of seashells and corals left over from previous investigations: fluted clamshells, spiraling Trochidae shells, hard corals, the sort of white and pink junk sold by aquarium supply stores and beachside tourist shops. They advertised their confidence items in magazines, and when legitimate orders came in, the seasoned crime fighters boxed and labeled seashell orders themselves.
As a complement to Pac Rim, Ops opened a retail business called Silver State Exotics outside Reno, Nevada. The combination gave the agents a circle of economic life—they could import animals in wholesale quantities through Pac Rim and retail what they didn't need for evidence through Silver State Exotics, giving Pac Rim the appearance of a thriving global operation (and an income).
On October 19, 1995, Morrison sent a fax to Anson's company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, explaining that he was a wholesaler of shells and corals interested in expanding into reptiles and amphibians. Anson replied with a one-page price list offering low-end frogs and toads for under five dollars and house geckos for 30 cents (items known in the pet industry as trash animals), listed by their Latin names. In one case Anson used his own name for a subspecies: ansoni. Two animals on the list stood out—the Fly River turtle (also known as the pig-nosed turtle) and the frilled lizard, protected throughout their ranges in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia. So in his first contact with Morrison, a complete stranger, Anson had offered a taste of illegal wildlife.