Endangered tortoise wheeled out in stroller by thieves returned to alligator farm, police say

1 of 2 stolen rare tortoises returned to St. Augustine Alligator Farm; 2 men arrested

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – One of two endangered tortoises was returned Wednesday to a popular St. Augustine attraction after being stolen late last year.

The rare reptiles were found at a house in St. Petersburg Tuesday night -- one of them was alive; the other one was dead.

Police arrested two men, 46-year-old Joshua McCarty-Thomas, and another man who has not been named.

McCarty-Thomas is facing charges related to the theft. Police said charges related to the case are pending for the other man.

Booking photo Joshua McCarty-Thomas (WJXT)

Investigators said the two tortoises were stolen from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in broad daylight when the park was open to visitors on Nov. 27.

It has been a difficult situation for the zoological park’s director John Brueggen and his staff.

“There’s been heartache and there’s been concern,” Brueggen said. “The staff has been here, agonizing over what happened to their tortoises. These are young tortoises. They were born in 2017 and we were growing them up. They could live up to 150 years if they are cared for correctly. But they are endangered species for a reason.”

Officer Dee Brown with the St. Augustine Police Department said the two men knew what they were doing. After watching more than 100 hours of surveillance video, investigators saw how everything played out.

“These two gentlemen that came in, they scoped out the place,” Brown said. “They came in with a baby stroller, hopped over an enclosure, and put the tortoises in the stroller and walked right out of the alligator farm.”

According to Brueggen, juvenile Galapagos tortoises can sell on the black market for as much as $10,000.

Brown said there was a break in the case when someone saw tortoises in a yard in St. Petersburg. Police searched the house and found one of the tortoises alive Tuesday night. The other was found dead in a freezer.

“It is bittersweet,” Brueggen said. “We lost one. We are sad about that. We are thrilled to have the other one come home.”

Florida Fish and Wildlife determined the tortoises belonged in St. Augustine due to their microchips.

Brown said it was a relief to find out what happened.

“[The alligator farm] is a big part of our community,” he said. “Make no mistake, this is an icon of St. Augustine.”

Brueggen said the surviving tortoise will be examined by veterinarians from the University of Florida on Thursday.

It heads to quarantine and will be away from the public for at least 90 days because the staff does not know what it was exposed to while it was gone.

The same veterinarians will perform a necropsy on the other tortoise to determine how it died.

Brueggen said changes have been made to hopefully prevent this from ever happening again.

“(We’ve gone) to great lengths to triple our security,” Brueggen said. “There are so many extra cameras. Now in our park, you cannot walk in or out without seeing everybody and what everybody’s doing.”

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