MANATEE — Justin Matthews made a name for himself in Bradenton trapping nuisance animals for the public.
But state wildlife officials Thursday said Matthews was the nuisance on July 25 when he released a 14-foot Burmese python into an East Manatee drainage pipe, staging its capture for area media in a hoax that made national headlines.
Now Matthews, 47, is facing a felony charge of misusing 911 service and a misdemeanor charge of maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe manner. He faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, if convicted.
“It was definitely a dangerous situation,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife investigator James Manson. “A snake that large could easily kill a human being if it had escaped.”
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Matthews declined to comment about the case Thursday, saying he is seeking an attorney. But he already publicly admitted to and apologized for the incident during a press conference in August.
The well-known snake trapper did say he is still giving wildlife presentations and conducting animal rescues locally. Matthews said he saved an injured crow Thursday at a local gas station.
“It’s embarrassing. This was a shock,” he said of his arrest. “But I am going to seek counsel and deal with it.”
FWC investigators say on July 25, Matthews called Tampa Bay-area media outlets, including the Herald, to witness the capture of the python from a drainage pipe. Matthews told onlookers he was capturing the snake after residents in the area reporting seeing it over a number of months, the report said.
But Matthews later admitted to purchasing the snake legally from a licensed reptile dealer in Tampa a month earlier and planting the snake in the drainage pipe, the FWC report said.
While FWC investigators looked into a tip that Matthews had staged the capture, Matthews ad- mitted to the hoax during a press conference, saying he did it to bring awareness to the growing problem of irresponsible python owners.
Matthews also maintained that the snake was a threat to children at a day care near the ditch, in the 3300 block of State Road 70. He also said the Manatee area is infested with such snakes, a claim that angered many in the exotic snake business.
“He hurt the whole business by making these false claims,” said Southeast Reptile Exchange owner Joe Fauci. “It’s a good deal that he was arrested. The guy deserves it.”
Matthews actually bought the snake used in the hoax from Fauci, and Fauci was the first to report to investigators suspicions that the capture had been staged.
FWC investigator Manson agreed that the stunt led to unfounded fear in the community.
“It did set of a off panic that was detrimental, and really untrue,” said Manson.
“We are having problems with pythons in South Florida, but really not in this area.”
FWC officials arrested Matthews on Wednesday, and he was released from the Manatee County jail on $5,750 bond.