In 2013, the feds swooped into Northeast Portland and began a multi-year international smuggling investigation.
Undercover agents, stakeouts, covert infiltration, financial records, search warrants, communication snooping, a raid, and a felony conviction—this one had it all. But this time, the feds weren’t after people dealing in drugs, guns, or human trafficking.
They were looking for a plant smuggler.
The Oregon-bound package didn’t make it past a mail-sorting facility in Los Angeles before raising suspicions, according to federal court records.
It was October 2013, and the gift-wrapped box, which bore the nickname of its Malaysian sender, was addressed to a Portland man named Mat Orchard. The feds seized and opened it.
Inside was an unusual kind of contraband.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agents found nearly three-dozen of some of the rarest and protected pitcher plants in the world. Inside were 35 Nepenthes rajah with spotty, yellowing leaves, and dirt clinging to their roots, which agents said indicated wild collection. If the plants came from a licensed nursery, there would be better soil.
According to Atlas Obscura, “Nepenthes rajah is the largest of the pitcher plants, and it’s also the largest carnivorous plant in the world.” It’s in the genus Nepenthes, like other bug-consuming plants in and near Southeast Asia.
“It’s essentially a trap filled with up to three and a half liters of digestive fluid,” Atlas Obscura continues. “It evolved to lure insects to it, and when the insects fall in they are unable to escape and are digested by the plant.”
Nepenthes rajah is only found in remote parts of Malaysia. It’s listed among the most endangered plants on Earth by an international government anti-smuggling pact called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
But like many scarce and coveted things, there’s a thriving black market for the plants, and the feds discovered a Portland man was importing Nepenthes rajah to the Pacific Northwest.
According to US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Resident Agent Sheila O’Connor the plants “are protected at the highest level.”
“They can’t sustain any commercial trade; they can’t sustain commercial harvest,” O’Connor says. “It’s a countdown to extinction when you’re commercializing these protected species. When you attach money to anything, there will be people out there who collect it until it’s all gone.”
With all this in mind, the feds looked at the suspicious Malaysian package and promptly started an investigation.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon a month later, a stranger walked into a Hollywood neighborhood bar.
He was there to join a casual group of enthusiasts who had been meeting at the Moon and Sixpence pub once a month or so to talk about—and oftentimes show off—their personal plant collections. The meet-up was organized on terraforums.com, an online message board for carnivorous plant (CP) nerds.
“Remember, this is just a casual meeting of like-minded CP enthusiasts and will not have any of the formalities of a CP Society meeting,” wrote “Mato” (Mat Orchard’s screen name) on the site’s message board. He’d posted the previous summer that their three-person club could use more members. “[Our] Portland plant triangle should expand into some sort of multi-sided polygon,” he wrote. “We encourage you to bring a plant or two if you’d like—as we’ll probably do the same—but if not, that’s fine, too.”
Orchard, at the time a skinny and bearded former Portland State student in his late 20s, was devoted to plants and organized his social life around them. In a Facebook post last year, he invited people to join yet another meet-up at the bar.
Plant meeting at the Moon and Sixpence today at 3.
Great way to see plants, talk to people about plants, get drunk off fermented plants... stumble out of the bar and attempt to get a tattoo of plants... make your way to the dispensary to smoke plants... Pass out on the couch covered in pizza slices, your head spinning, haunted by what you don’t remember and the horrible realization that you poisoned your liver just to look at someone’s houseplants.
Repeat in 30 days.
It had been a regular thing—3 pm on the second Saturday of the month, led by Orchard—for nearly a year by the time the stranger showed up in November 2013.
The man walked in and spotted a small group of people and their plants gathered around some tables in the dimly lit pub. He introduced himself to “Mato”—Orchard—who had invited him to join the group.
The new guy asked Orchard if he’d ever seen pitcher plants before—you know, the large carnivorous plants from Southeast Asia.
Orchard pulled out his phone, showing off pictures of Nepenthes rajah: “Yeah, I have those.”
But Orchard’s new acquaintance wasn’t interested in camaraderie or idle chitchat about houseplants.
The man was Special Agent Jimmy Barna of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). He infiltrated the Portland plant-based social group to find evidence of illegal international plant smuggling by Orchard.
And he succeeded. Very, very slowly.
For an expert, Orchard wasn’t particularly discreet about buying and selling protected plants that require a federal permit. This sloppiness would ultimately earn him a felony conviction.
In October 2013, after the USDA seized the Nepenthes rajah package addressed to Orchard, Los Angeles-based agents forwarded the shipment to Oregon-based FWS agents to investigate.
“It was certainly a plant I had never heard of before,” said the FWS’ O’Connor, who oversaw the investigation. “We didn’t know a lot about this market and wanted to learn what the scope of illegal activity might be: how it’s being used, how it’s getting into the US. It lends itself to undercover work.”
Within days, Agent Barna staked out Orchard’s Northeast Portland apartment. He wrote in an affidavit that he spotted “what appeared to be live pitcher plants in plain view in a window box” of his fourth floor unit. “I also saw heat lights and what appeared to be black plastic inside the windows, which are indicators of a plant growing operation.”
Barna then found Orchard’s Facebook profile and saw he “belonged to several carnivorous plant groups,” including one that meets monthly at the Moon and Sixpence, very near the suspect’s home.
On November 6, the FWS says it delivered a letter informing Orchard that his Nepenthes rajah package was seized in California. It offered him info on the CITES pact and a “buyer beware” brochure.
“I covertly entered the Moon and Sixpence Pub in an attempt to observe the carnivorous plant meetings.”
Three days later, the undercover Barna infiltrated Orchard’s plant group for the first time.
“I covertly entered the Moon and Sixpence Pub in an attempt to observe the carnivorous plant meetings,” he wrote in an affidavit. “I walked by their table, displayed interest in the plants, and was invited to sit with them. I met Orchard and other group members.”
Orchard became Facebook friends with Barna. Or, more accurately, he became Facebook friends with Barna’s alias. Orchard messaged and invited him to the January 2014 meet-up at the pub.
Following that club meeting, Orchard invited the entire plant crew, including the federal agent, back to his apartment—or “Subject Premises” in law enforcement vernacular—to look at more plants. “I agreed,” Barna testified, “and followed Orchard and the group to Subject Premises.”
Inside, he documented greenhouses dedicated to carnivorous plants, with built-in lighting and irrigation systems. He spotted protected plants throughout the one-bedroom apartment.
“I observed several varieties of Nepenthes plants in varying sizes, from seedlings to mature plants with large pitchers,” Barna wrote. “I observed smaller plants which appeared to be the same species grouped together, similar to what I’ve observed in commercial operations. Many plants looked the same as the N. rajah in Orchard’s seized shipment.”
Barna says Orchard pointed the Nepenthes plants out to him. There were roughly 150 of them—and not all were Nepenthes rajah. The agent says Orchard bought and sold other plants from the same protected genus: Nepenthes edwardsiana, Nepenthes hamata, and Nepenthes villosa.
While Barna built his undercover friendship with Orchard, he was also obtaining the suspect’s eBay and PayPal records, and filing a federal search warrant for his email account. The records detailed Orchard’s web of international connections, as well as a history of the purchase and sales of plants he wasn’t allowed to possess: at least 25 separate purchases of protected Nepenthes plants between 2009 and 2014.
Email and PayPal records revealed the identity of his Nepenthes rajah connection—the person who sent the package that was seized. He’d been Orchard’s hookup for years.
The alleged Malaysian smuggler’s Facebook page is still public, with regular posts geo-tagged from Malaysian towns with pictures offering freshly plucked funky flora for sale, soil still clinging to the roots, directing people to message him for details.
Barna connected Orchard to seven accused international plant smugglers in six countries: England, France, Germany, Poland, Indonesia, and, of course, Malaysia. He also found some of Orchard’s buyers in Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, California, and elsewhere in Oregon.
In 2013 alone, Orchard paid $16,741 for Nepenthes plants while selling others for $10,699, according to his financial records.
In November 2014, a year after the suspect first met the undercover Barna at the bar, Orchard brought a box of the protected plants to that month’s meet-up. They were infested with pests.
According to Barna, Orchard was buying more and more plants, and admitted to being less “careful” where they came from. “Now I get the plants from everywhere,” Orchard told the group. “Something must have come in on another plant that was infested.”
The botanist’s apartment was not only filling up with more Nepenthes, but more equipment to help them survive. He spoke of wanting to find a larger apartment to house everything.
Orchard offered to give Barna a Nepenthes miranda cutting. At the July 2015 meet-up, the suspect brought him back to his apartment and the agent again documented an ever-growing plant operation: more terrariums, pots, and growing tents.
Over the next year, Orchard took photos of plants he wasn’t legally allowed to have, posting them on Facebook and Flickr. Barna took screenshots.
At 8:05 a.m. on April 26, 2016—two and a half years after FWS Special Agent Jimmy Barna first went undercover at the Moon and Sixpence—the feds finally raided “Suspect Premises.” They were looking for endangered plants, records of smuggling, and financial information for “Nepenthes Nursery” and “Wistuba Exotics,” the businesses that feds say Orchard was connected to.
They confiscated quite a bit: 377 plants, “plant related documents,” growing supplies, terrariums, incoming and outgoing shipping boxes, and Orchard’s computer, external hard drives, camera, and cell phone.
Then, according to what the Mercury could find, nothing happened with the case for nearly 10 more months. But on February 21, Orchard was indicted on a Lacey Act Violation—essentially a single charge of international protected wildlife smuggling. He pleaded guilty to the felony in May.
Though the investigation lasted several years, the feds only charged Orchard with selling Nepenthes villosa plants valued at more than $350 in November 2014—a sale revealed in the suspect’s email records. He paid his Malaysian supplier $403 for 10 of the plants, and then sold them to his connections around the country over the next month. O’Connor said they talked with a group of Malaysian officials about Orchard’s supplier “a couple months ago.”
“The talks are informal at this point, but we do plan on supplying the Malaysian government with all the information after sentencing.”
“They’re aware of it,” she said. “The talks are informal at this point, but we do plan on supplying the Malaysian government with all the information after sentencing.”
That’s scheduled to happen in August. Orchard faces up to five years in prison—though he’ll probably get probation.
In the meantime, the monthly meet-up of plant geeks at the Moon and Sixpence is still going strong, nearly five years in... though now likely with one fewer smuggler and federal agent. Barna has moved to Georgia, the FWS says.
“Well, this Saturday is the second of the month and you know what that means!” wrote one of Orchard’s friends in June on the terraforums.com meet-up thread. “We will, as always, meet at the Moon and Sixpence pub when it opens at 3:00 P.M. Everyone is welcome! :) ”