A man who left the North-East to become a minister of a Californian “Moonies” church has been jailed for masterminding a shark-smuggling scam.
Kevin Thompson, 48, from Jarrow, South Tyneside, has been pastor at the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, which is part of the Rev Sun Myung Moon’s Unification movement, since 1992.
He was sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay $100,000 ( £51,000) after pleading guilty to poaching thousands of leopard sharks and selling them to aquariums and fish enthusiasts throughout the UK, Netherlands and United States.
Mr Thompson’s gang is estimated to have netted $1.2m ( £600,000) which would make it the biggest baby leopard shark poaching ring in the US.
The father-of-five, whose ministry was known as Ocean Church, was one of six people arrested – including a second man from the North-East, John Newberry, 34, of Newcastle.
It is believed Thompson may have been trying to impress the founder of the Unification Church Mr Moon, who has reportedly proclaimed himself “King of the Ocean”.
The scam, which involved using lowly-paid teenagers to poach baby leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay, is understood to have netted Thompson and his followers up to £600,000 after they charged buyers £10 and £18 per fish.
The sharks, which are about 10 inches in length as pups, but can grow to 7ft as adults and need to swim in a tank with at least 500 gallons of water.
The poaching was uncovered after a two-year investigation by US Special Agent Roy Torres, of the Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement, in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK. The UK investigation, by Stephen Maidment[correct], of Defra’s Fish Health Inspectorate, traced some of the sharks to a company in Hertfordshire.
Mr Maidment said: “It was felt it would be cruel to parcel them up and send them back to California to be dumped in the sea, so it was agreed that they’d stay where they were.”
A further 19 leopard sharks were recovered during the investigation in the US.
US attorney Kevin V Ryan said: “This case exemplifies this office’s commitment to protecting the wildlife in the San Francisco Bay from illegal poaching and smuggling on the international black market.”
The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity was founded by Rev Moon in 1954, who claimed to have been visited by Jesus as a teenager and told to complete the work Christ left unfinished following his crucifixion.
The movement attracted controversy in the 1970s and 1980s after suggestions that it was little more than a cult and accusations it used brainwashing techniques to recruit impressionable young people.
It has since invested heavily in legitimate businesses, especially in America, where its massive seafood empire, True World Foods, supplies raw fish to more than 6,000 restaurants.
Mr Thompson has until March to surrender himself into custody.
Church’s fishing empire
Reverend Kevin Thompson arrived in the United States in the late 1980s after leaving his native Jarrow.
He quickly found a home working for the Unification Church’s domestic fishing empire before becoming youth pastor in Berkeley, California.
Fishing has been an important part of the movement’s beliefs since its founder Rev Sun Myung Moon said he was `King of the Ocean’ and Thompson, who was a keen fisherman, took this to heart.
After becoming pastor at the Unification Church in San Leandro, California, the father of five called his ministry `Ocean Church’.
It is understood he paid young people between ?1 and ?1.50 for each shark caught and sold them on for up to ?20 each to aquariums and dealers across the US, UK and Netherlands.
Thompson was only caught when dealers in Florida and Chicago were arrested and gave evidence against him.