published Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

No jail time for snake dealer, 2 other men after fatal bite

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    Chuck Hurd was arrested Wednesday night on 48 charges related to possession of Class I (dangerous) wildlife

A snake dealer and two other men arrested in an investigation of a fatal copperhead bite took a plea deal Monday and avoided jail.

Chuck Hurd, 39, of Gate City, Va., pleaded guilty to 22 counts of violating Tennessee’s ban on possessing and transporting poisonous snakes. He and the other men were fined $1,000 and put on probation.

Hurd originally was charged with 48 counts, each carrying a maximum possible penalty of nearly a year in jail.

Hurd and the other defendants, Michael Roger Clark, 32, and Timothy L. Lunsford, 37, were arrested after Wade Westbrook was bitten Jan. 29 while handling the snake at his home in East Ridge, a Chattanooga suburb where the men live.

A hearing for a fourth man charged in the case, Derek Lee Schrader, 20, was delayed.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Dan Hicks said Monday that the snakes seized from the men were going to be used in educational programs, possibly zoos.

“In Tennessee the possession of poisonous snakes is a public safety issue,” Hicks said. “Our native wildlife species should remain wild.”

Assistant District Attorney Ben Boyer said he could not comment with a fourth case pending.

Hurd said the confiscation of his snakes, including an “irreplaceable copperhead-cottonmouth hybrid,” and publicity about the case, interrupted his appearances at animal shows and has hurt his reputation.

“It’s going to greatly affect what I do,” Hurd said during a break in the hearing.

After Westbrook’s death, Hurd said he was returning to Virginia from a show in Atlanta and had stopped in East Ridge to meet with friends when his snakes were confiscated.

Authorities confiscated poisonous snakes and a cooler containing dozens of frozen dead snakes belonging to Hurd. It’s legal to have such snakes in some neighboring states, but not Tennessee.

Hurd said after his arrest that the case stemmed from “mass hysteria” in East Ridge after Westbrook died. He said he had previously interpreted Tennessee’s transport law differently from the wildlife agency and will no longer transport snakes in Tennessee.

Lunsford’s attorney, Gerald Webb, said his client has no criminal record and qualified for pretrial diversion, which will expunge all record of his guilty plea to eight counts if he stays out of trouble while on probation for a year. Clark declined comment. He was placed on probation until his fine is paid.

Hurd, whose website shows photos of him handling a massive python and other reptiles, says his love for snakes began as a boy when he collected them on his family farm and evolved into a profitable hobby. It never led him to trouble with the law until after Westbrook’s death.

Hurd said he did not give the copperhead to Westbrook, who Hurd said shared his hobby as an acquaintance but was not a friend.

Copperhead bites rarely are fatal — in fact, friends said it wasn’t the first time Westbrook had been bitten by one. But doctors said a previous bite may have caused Westbrook to have a severe allergic reaction.

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