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Attorney: $88K vindicates turtle collector

ATLANTA -- Lawrenceville resident Steve Santhuff has a degree in -- and a passion for -- zoology. He's recognized as one of the foremost caretakers and breeders of rare map turtles in the United States, his attorney said.

But accusations in 2005 of illegal wildlife possession and lingering court cases have rendered Santhuff's studies and conservation efforts idle, attorney Steve Wasley said.

"He spent the last 25 years of his life traveling the U.S., swimming in rivers, collecting," Wasley said. "It's pretty sad."

Following a four-day civil trial in U.S. District Court in Atlanta this week, Santhuff is due financial payback for his troubles.

A jury awarded Santhuff $88,500 after finding that two federal agents violated his civil rights in July 2005 by entering his backyard on Rhine Way and seizing 15 turtles without a warrant or consent. Santhuff and his wife were away at the time, Wasley said.

Santhuff was initially asking for $2 million in damages, but that was scaled back to $300,000 when some evidence was barred from trial, Wasley said.

Wasley expects prosecutors to appeal the jury's verdict before his client can be compensated.

The jury sided with the plaintiff in finding that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Gary Phillips and Alabama State DNR Officer Michael Bloxom violated Santhuff's civil rights in seizing the turtles. Bloxom was commissioned as a federal agent at the time, Wasley said.

Based on findings at the home, Santhuff was arrested on 21 counts of unlawful possession of wildlife. Four counts were thrown out at trial, and a jury acquitted Santhuff of the remainder in a February 2008 verdict.

Two more lawsuits are pending against Georgia's Department of Natural Resources in federal district court and Gwinnett Superior Court, Wasley said.

The local suit claims a DNR officer, biologist and several other state employees entered Santhuff's property in plain clothes on July 21, 2005, and illegally confiscated more than 500 turtles, according to court documents.

Three hundred of those specimens have died, Wasley said.

Agents and DNR officials claimed they'd been tipped off to Santhuff's cache of wildlife, Wasley said. He contends they were aware of -- and had no qualms with -- the turtle collection, and decided to raid the property for unknown reasons.

The suit filed in Gwinnett Superior Court could be settled without a trial, pending a decision by the State Attorney General's Office.

In the meantime, Wasley said his client is pleased with the jury's findings.

"We've been saying all along that they violated his ... constitutional rights," Wasley said. "A jury of 12 people, they believed that. There's some vindication there."