Newcomer as Ted Nelson arrived at the museum in 2003, found Kojima's booth and just started yapping. Convincing Kojima of his sincerity was easy. Newcomer's ignorance, and his interest, was real. And Newcomer could tell Kojima liked the attention. He pointed out insects and quoted prices, and the two men shared laughs. At day's end, Kojima gave Ted Nelson a gift, a box of mounted butterflies to start his collection.
Within weeks, the pair became buddies. Over coffee at Starbucks on Venice Boulevard, Kojima talked about the time Mexican customs agents caught him with 200 live beetles and the time a South American official saw a beetle's horn poking from his carry-on. Kojima told Nelson he sold antiques through Sotheby's and once had collected fighting fish. He said he kept homes in Los Angeles and Japan, had run a travel business and held two official passports -- one Japanese, one American.
Kojima explained how far bug collectors went for their obsession. True insect lovers didn't just catch butterflies but gathered larvae, pupae, chrysalises and cocoons. They grew special plants in their homes and reared their own specimens. The finest collectors wanted butterflies that had never flown -- flying could scratch those delicate papery wings. True collectors used caterpillars to produce new collectibles before their eyes. The moment the creatures emerged and their wings filled with blood, they slipped the fresh specimens in glassine envelopes and refrigerated them. The dying insects metabolized their fat keeping warm. Once the butterflies were dead, the collectors stuck them with pins and mounted them under glass.
Newcomer filed away each tidbit, not knowing what might prove useful later. He told Kojima he reminded him of Indiana Jones. The balding bug collector clearly liked the comparison. Kojima confided that he wanted to reach new clients. He wanted to sell on eBay, but feared his written English was too poor. "I can do so many things, but I could not use eBay," he said, chuckling. He suggested his new acquaintance become his partner: Yoshi Kojima could supply the insects, and Ted Nelson could write descriptions.
Butterfly trading is controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an agreement among more than 170 countries. CITES was designed to prevent the overexploitation of rare creatures, and it protects 30,000 plants and animals using three categories, reflecting the varying levels of scarcity and risk posed by commerce. CITES III species generally thrive despite being bought and sold, but purchases are regulated and require export permits. CITES II species do not yet face extinction but could, so nations limit exports to keep populations stable. These species are carefully controlled, like prescription drugs. Buying or selling CITES II species isn't illegal unless done without permits. CITES I species, except in rare circumstances, are vanishing so rapidly from the planet that trade in them is outlawed. Getting these was Kojima's specialty.
Newcomer suspected his new friend wanted a patsy -- someone he could feed to the cops in a pinch. He'd warned Nelson to avoid customers who demanded documentation. If federal agents ever contacted him, Nelson was to say that his boss stored permits in Japan. But Newcomer knew that if authorities caught them, Kojima would skip to Japan and pin blame on Ted Nelson. The agent, of course, kept such thoughts to himself.
There was good reason for Kojima to be cautious. Cruising bug-trading Web sites that fall, Newcomer found buyers openly suspicious of Kojima. One European collector said he'd seen him sell too many "unbelievable specimens" at "unbelievable prices." He suggested that Kojima was a crook or a con. An Indonesian collector complained that Kojima owed him money. Still another came to his defense.
Reading the exchanges gave Newcomer an idea. What if Ted Nelson posted messages vouching for Kojima? He would ingratiate himself with the butterfly king. Newcomer figured the insect dealer would appreciate the initiative.
The undercover agent could not have been more wrong. Instead of offering thanks, Kojima excoriated him. Ted Nelson didn't know what he was doing! Ted Nelson had moved too quickly without him! Ted Nelson did not properly screen his customers! If the feds raided Ted Nelson's home, they'd find Kojima's name on his computer! Ted Nelson was going to get them both caught!
Newcomer had clearly overplayed his hand. The agent wasn't sure what to do next. He kept in contact with Kojima by e-mail, but now the relationship was different, distant. His suspect eventually returned to Japan without Newcomer witnessing a single illegal sale. But Special Agent Newcomer wasn't quite through.
Seeking to get Kojima's attention, Newcomer decided to sell his own butterflies on eBay, advertised with digital pictures he'd gotten from Kojima. Newcomer would assign other federal agents to post the highest bid at each auction, to make sure he never completed a real sale. Newcomer held dozens of online auctions, hoping to show Kojima he could make his plan work. He didn't expect the reaction he got.
Kojima was livid. He saw Ted Nelson as a competitor and started openly campaigning against him. Whenever Ted Nelson posted a butterfly for sale, Kojima listed the same species for sale on another Web site. Sometimes Kojima added a jab. "Shame on you Ted Nelson," he wrote once. "You're using my photos without permission. You don't have CITES for this." Kojima advertised his goods as cheaper "than Ebay auction and Ted Nelson."
Newcomer knew he was in trouble. His aggressive tactics weren't working. More than a year after their first meeting, all Newcomer had done was turn Kojima against him. Still, he was determined to salvage something. He asked another agent to pose as a collector and try to purchase butterflies from Kojima online. In a moment of weakness, the careful dealer dropped his guard. Kojima sold this stranger three Bhutan glory butterflies and agreed to do so without proper paperwork. A package of butterflies arrived in the mail. They were smuggled, misdeclared, and lacking documentation.
The agents had finally caught Yoshi Kojima committing crimes.
But the crimes were a joke, and Newcomer knew it. Rather than a conspiracy to smuggle thousands of imperiled animals, the agent caught the butterfly kingpin trafficking $137 worth of insects. It was like nailing Pablo Escobar for snorting a single line of coke. No U.S. attorney would touch a case so small. Worse, Kojima had stopped corresponding entirely. Newcomer ran several more eBay auctions, but the butterfly king never surfaced again.
When Newcomer took a call from a state game warden in San Diego in 2004, he knew his investigation was over. An angry Japanese man ranting about butterfly smugglers -- one smuggler in particular -- had left a taped message on the agency's tip line. Newcomer had the warden send him the recording, but he already knew what he would hear. Kojima had called California's poaching hotline and, anonymously, turned Ted Nelson in.
Newcomer had torpedoed his own case.