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Sea lion prosecution in limbo

A week after a sea lion was stabbed, county prosecutors still haven't decided if they will yield to federal prosecutors.

August 04, 2007|By Heidi Schultheis

Many questions remain in the recent case of a Garden Grove man accused of stabbing a sea lion in Newport Beach that had to be later euthanized.

Chief among them is who will prosecute Hai Nguyen, 24. Nguyen was booked on suspicion of cruelty to animals July 27, but it's unknown a week later who will take the lead in his prosecution.

After he was arrested, Nguyen posted $20,000 bail and was released. That gives county prosecutors until his next court date, Sept. 10, to decide if they want to pursue the case or yield to federal prosectors.

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"The federal government was involved in part of the investigation, and we will be involved with them as far as using the information they collected in their investigation when making a filing determination," said Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney's office.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on whether the federal government has been in discussions with county prosecutors.

As for what county prosecutors might do, Mrozek said, "Right now, I'm not quite sure what the state is thinking."

Ordinarily, charges would have been filed within three days of the arrest. But because Nguyen posted bail, charges could be filed until as late as the morning of Nguyen's next court date, Emami said.

Adding to the unusual nature of this case is that Nguyen even faces animal cruelty charges.

That's because it's atypical for anyone to get close to a sea lion, said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game.

"This case is going through the cruelty to animals situation, which is kind of a unique way to go with it. I've never heard of anyone stabbing a sea lion with a steak knife. I have to wonder, 'How did the individual get that close to the animal, and what happened there,' " Morse said.

Nguyen is accused of attacking the sea lion after it took bait from his fishing pole, police said.

What also makes the case odd is that he would be prosecuted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which was put in place to protect sea lions when they were endangered. While it benefits other endangered species, sea lions appear to be thriving.

The federal law was passed when the sea lion population was down to a few thousand as they were hunted for their pelts and blubber.

The 1972 act helped California sea lions reach their optimal sustainable population in 1997. Since then, due to their federal protection and a decrease in sea lion hunting, they have grown to more than 200,000 to 300,000.

"They have exceeded their aboriginal population," Morse said.


  • HEIDI SCHULTHEIS may be reached at (714) 966-4625 or at heidi.schultheis@latimes.com.

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