When they met again the next day, Kojima arrived with a gift. He pulled a small, clear plastic box from a fanny pack. Inside, Newcomer spied five small brown cocoons, illegal Papilio indra kaibabensis, from the Grand Canyon. Kojima wanted to know if Ted Nelson could get more. The indras could earn them a fortune in Japan, he said. Would Ted Nelson consider becoming Kojima's American supplier? The agent remained noncommittal, but his heart raced again. Kojima obviously trusted him -- the man was asking him to commit a federal crime.
No one knows how many butterfly species are lifted from national parks in the American West, or how often, "but I can say we repeatedly hear that it's happening," Newcomer would tell me later. "There's even a recommended M.O. You use a small butterfly net that you can shove in your backpack quick, and you keep a birding book with you and binoculars so that if you're approached by a ranger or other hikers, you're all of a sudden a birdwatcher. When no one's looking, you're collecting butterflies."
Before leaving for Japan, Kojima looked over Newcomer's most-wanted list, and agreed to supply every species on it, including the rare Queen Alexandra birdwing. He also offered, unsolicited, to sell Nelson an imperiled Jamaican swallowtail. Kojima urged Nelson to set up an account on Skype so the two men could have video chats.
With an ocean between them, Kojima's confidence brimmed. He promised to send Newcomer a Queen Alexandra from his collection. On one Skype call, he held mounted, endangered Corsican swallowtails to the camera. He agreed to sell six for $700 a pair, even though they were banned from trade. Kojima confessed that his personal butterfly inventory topped a half-million dollars. He promised to send Newcomer endangered peacock swallowtails. In exchange, he wanted Arizona maps: He planned to mark areas in the Grand Canyon where Ted Nelson should start collecting. Then he offered Newcomer an extremely rare hybrid southeast Asian butterfly, Ornithoptera allotei. The price: $30,000.
Newcomer couldn't have been more pleased. Soon, his packages started rolling in. Six weeks after their reunion at the bug fair, Ted Nelson had bought $26,000 worth of illegal butterflies. Kojima had offered $300,000 more in merchandise, and now Newcomer had digital video of him committing felonies. Newcomer faced one last hurdle: his suspect was in Japan, with no immediate plans to return.
The smuggler ultimately provided the solution. The more the men talked, the bolder he grew -- and the two men spoke almost daily. Kojima openly acknowledged an attraction to Ted Nelson. He made lurid comments when dickering over prices. He asked Ted Nelson to remove his shirt when showing cocoons to the camera, and though Newcomer tried to steer them back to butterflies, an idea began to percolate.
A month into their regular video chats, Newcomer saw his opening to coax Kojima back. During one conversation, Kojima groused that Ted Nelson owed him too much money. Newcomer made his play, grinning into the camera. If they could meet in person, Ted Nelson would "make it up to him." The agent let the double entendre linger.
"Really," Kojima said, drawing out the word.
"You'll just have to wait until you get back to L.A.," Newcomer said.
"You're a tease," Kojima muttered.
Newcomer laughed. "How else am I going to get you to come here?"
Two months after they reunited at the bug fair, Kojima landed at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was greeted by federal agents. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to 17 charges, but got sentenced to less than two years in federal prison. Newcomer stayed in hiding during the arrest, but visited the smuggler in jail the next day. Kojima spied the handcuffs, the badge and an empty gun holster. Newcomer saw his eyes widen in recognition. Finally the bug dealer sputtered, You're an agent?
In the end, most of what Kojiima told Newcomer proved to be lies. He had never held two passports, and he never worked for National Geographic. Once, Kojima had called Ted Nelson to say he was in the United States. He offered details of his stay in St. George, Utah. Two days later, an informant confirmed the story for Newcomer: He'd heard Kojima was collecting just hours outside St. George, in the Grand Canyon. Only later would Newcomer figure out that Kojima had been in Kyoto, Japan, the whole time.
"Yoshi knew -- this was smart -- that you just tell lies to everybody," Newcomer told me from his office. "You tell some truths, but always mix in some lies." And in truth the butterfly king had created a coherent world of lies. But he came up against an adversary who ran a better con.
Kojima had been at the very top, but he hadn't worked entirely alone. He'd confessed to Ted Nelson something that earlier agents had long suspected: For years, he'd gone in and out of national parks, taking butterflies from Death Valley and the Grand Canyon and sending them to Japan. But Kojima had told Nelson that was in the past. "He told me he quit doing it because he felt it was too dangerous. He thought it was too risky so he'd gotten out of it. In fact, in 2006 he was back in LA specifically to meet up with somebody who was supplying him with Papilio indra kaibabensis." Kojima had remained cagey, refusing to share his source with Nelson.
But being a federal agent is about figuring things out. When asked whether he thought Kojima's contacts were still out there gathering insects from the Grand Canyon, Special Agent Newcomer didn't hesitate.
"Yes, I do," Newcomer said. "But I believe I know who they are."
Craig Welch is the environment reporter at The Seattle Times. He's never seen Papilio indra kaibabensis in the wild, but he would like to. Shell Games, released April 6, is his first book.
For more information, visit:
The Congressional Research Service's recent report on wildlife trafficking and its policy implications