State officials have charged a man they call a "major player in the transportation and importation of poisonous snakes into the state of Tennessee," opening a new chapter in the investigation of an East Ridge man's snakebite death Sunday.
But Chuck Hurd, who was arrested by officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said his Wednesday arrest "has no bearing on Wade Westbrook's death whatsoever."
Hurd, of Gate City, Va., was "found to have transported and housed a large black plastic box containing 12 highly venomous snakes," arrest records show. He is charged with 48 counts — four counts for each snake: possession of Class 1 (dangerous) wildlife, holding such wildlife, possession without documentation and importation without permits, TWRA spokesman Dan Hicks said at a news conference Thursday.
Additional snakes are still being identified, he said.
Along with the live snakes, the TWRA confiscated a freezer full of dead snakes and other animals they say belonged to Hurd.
Hurd, 38, could face a maximum jail time of 11 months and 29 days and a $2,500 fine on each count, Hicks said.
Hicks said Hurd has more charges pending, and that the agency also hasn't ruled out the option of seeking involuntary manslaughter charges in Westbrook's death.
Westbrook died from anaphylactic shock — a severe allergic reaction — after a copperhead bit him Saturday. Police first were told a friend brought the snake to Westbrook to check its gender, but on Thursday Hicks confirmed that the snake belonged to Westbrook.
Hicks would not confirm whether Westbrook obtained the snake from Hurd, but Hurd said the snake did not come from his supply and that he had not spoken with Westbrook for more than a year.
"I usually recommend copperheads for first-time venomous snake owners, but I never recommended that Wade keep them. He didn't have the disposition to keep venomous snakes. ... I knew he was an accident waiting to happen," Hurd said in an interview.
According to Hurd, Westbrook sought him out in 2007 to learn about handling venomous snakes.
Hurd said he was there when Westbrook first was bitten by a snake in Ringgold, Ga., two years ago, and that Westbrook suffered no major complications.
In recent Facebook posts, Hurd has asked for prayers for Westbrook's family and said he's shaken and miserable about what happened.
"I know in my head that I didn't kill Wade, but I feel different in my heart. ... I may not have pulled the trigger, but I handed him a loaded gun ... without me, he would not have had the snake," a recent post states.
Hurd, a graduate of the University of Tennessee-at Chattanooga, said in the interview that the Facebook posts referred to the fact that he initially introduced Westbrook to venomous snakes.
Hicks said Hurd's arrest is expected to be just the tip of a larger investigation into transportation of dangerous reptiles and possible illegal sales. He said the TWRA believes Hurd has made frequent trips to Chattanooga and worked with snake enthusiasts in the area.
Hurd, who works with reptiles at a zoo in Virginia, said he does not sell venomous snakes in Tennessee and only trains people to work with venomous snakes in Virginia, where regulations are less restrictive.
He said he was arrested while visiting friends this week after traveling to Atlanta for a reptile convention over the weekend.
Hurd said he knew it is illegal to keep venomous snakes in Tennessee, but not that it was illegal to transport them through the state.
Hurd was released on his own recognizance and is due in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on Monday.
His Web page is devoted to venomous snakes, detailing how to catch and care for them, complete with offers to sell everything from snakes to venom samples.
CHUCK HURD'S WEBSITE
Breeding project updates
Services: Educational displays, lectures and entertainment; snake removal and relocation, birthday parties
Snakes and equipment
Venom samples: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths
Photo galleries and personal information
Instructional videos: capture, care and feeding, first aid; religious use
Links to herpetological sites