Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Big penalty awaits flytrap pilferers

Venus fly trap
Venus fly trap Carolina State Beach Park

The Venus flytrap grows in the boggy bottomland of the North Carolina coast, a carnivorous plant native to the patch of swamps within 60 miles of Wilmington – a vegetative curiosity best-known as the ravenous character from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

For many years now, outlaw plant-diggers have mucked their way through that marshy territory carrying pillowcases and shovels, collecting the insect-eating flora and selling them, illegally, for dimes and quarters apiece.

Until recently, this horticultural crime ranked as a misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine. But a new law enacted one year ago makes flytrap pilfering a felony – harsh news for a pair of unfortunates in Brunswick County, caught with a sackful.

On Nov. 1, sheriff’s deputies charged these men with taking 1,025 Venus flytraps from Orton Plantation, the historic antebellum plantation that sprawls along the Cape Fear River. For this charge, which also included the theft of purple pitcher plants, they were jailed with bond set at $1 million – the amount more commonly reserved for murderers.

Their arrest marks the first felony flytrap case in Brunswick County, so there are no comparative data to measure whether stricter punishment has deterred such thievery in the woods. But I predict that should these men become convicted plant felons, few will follow their muddy footsteps.

“I can tell you,” said Sgt. Brandon Dean, called in on the case for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, “there is a significant difference now.”

Neither arrestee could be called new to the world of flytrap crime. Scottie Gerome Stevenson, 44, has a 2012 conviction on his record for taking wild plants. David Joel Lewis, 23, owns several plant-related priors. Perhaps this sort of criminal history doesn’t strike our coastal cousins as bizarre, having Venus flytraps in such close proximity, but I never dreamed anyone could make a life of plucking up the rare botany of our state.

In 2009, poachers using a butcher knife pried up 900 flytraps from the Green Swamp Preserve outside Supply. They took thousands more in 2006, prompting officials to mark such plants with orange dye. Orchid thieves are notorious enough to inspire a New Yorker story, nonfiction book and Oscar-winning movie, but flytrap stealers still work in relative obscurity.

Dean described how this activity typically unfolds:

Orton Plantation covers thousands of acres, enough that a would-be thief can get dropped off along the roadside and slip unseen into the woods. From there, they dig all day on their knees, concealed by tall grasses.

In this case, a staff member on the plantation spotted two men with a backpack and no reason to be on the private property, and he reported them to a sheriff’s deputy who was working security that Saturday. When officers approached, the men ran across a grassy field. So officers drove to the other end of the plantation and waited for the men to emerge. Once they saw the officers waiting, the men turned around and ran back to where they started.

This went on for some time.

“They played cat and mouse, running,” Dean said, “and they got so exhausted when the first deputy arrived they just threw their hands up and asked for a bottle of water.”

A K-9 unit found the backpack within 10 minutes, along with a machete, which is frequently used as a flytrap-digging tool. All the recovered flytraps were replanted in Orton’s greenhouse. Had they been sold, Dean estimated “they would have made close to 200 bucks apiece.”

Crime, we know, does not pay – especially crime committed in such O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou fashion. Many decades have passed since men could bumble around in the swamps undetected for long. And these particular woods, when I last visited, were flush with alligators. So take heed, children. Seek not to profit from the mysterious dionaea muscipula, tiny green meat-eater. Buy a book and study it instead.