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No jail time for snake dealer, 2 others after fatal bite

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- 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 was originally 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.