A Palm Beach woman who made repeated calls about people illegally disturbing sea turtle nests along the island’s coastline has now been charged with the same crime, according to a report from the Palm Beach Police Department.

Town Police arrested Barbara Stoia, 58, and two other people on charges of illegally disturbing nesting sea turtles, eggs and hatchlings.

Stoia, her neighbor Frank Herz, 52, and her property manager, Eduan Morales, 38, of Loxahatchee, were charged with violating state statutes that protect Florida’s marine turtle habitat.

Stoia, who also goes by Barbara Meister, and Morales were arrested Saturday and released the same day.

Stoia’s attorney disputed the idea that she had violated any law, and the lawyer for a local environmental group suggested her arrest could be in retaliation for other complaints she had brought to the town, an allegation Palm Beach Police denied.

More: Unleashed dogs a danger to turtle eggs, hatchlings, says Palm Beach advocate

Herz was arrested July 28 and released the following day.

All three posted $3,000 bond.

Stoia and others previously had lodged numerous complaints regarding the welfare of sea turtles on the town’s beaches during the past several years, police department spokesperson Capt. Will Rothrock said.

According to a probable-cause affidavit provided to the Daily News, Stoia made multiple calls to police between May 20 and July 4 complaining about the harassment of sea turtles and their nests on the beach at Root Trail and her home on Seminole Avenue.

“Please have officers do something,” she said, according to the affidavit. “It’s criminal what they’re doing.”

On July 24, Stoia herself was accused of disturbing sea turtle nests and hatchlings.

According to a complaint submitted by D.B. Ecological Inc., the town’s turtle monitoring consultant which works as an agent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, photos taken that morning on the beach near Seminole Avenue showed ‘hand scrapes’ at an emerged turtle nest and shoe prints throughout the same emerged nest site.

The individual leaving the shoe print most likely removed pre-emergent hatchlings from nest site locations, the FWC wrote in the complaint.

A female later identified as Stoia was observed standing in the water and looking at something before returning to shore, according to the complaint. She then walked off the beach.

Three days later, based on complaints from the community as well as concerns that Stoia was suspected to be handling sea turtles without the proper state permit, undercover detectives from Palm Beach’s Organized Crime, Vice and Narcotics Unit conducted surveillance of an undisclosed location on the island.

During that surveillance, Herz and Stoia were observed searching the beach near her home on Seminole Avenue and stopping at sea turtle nests, according to a probable cause affidavit released by Town Police.

After Stoia walked away, Herz picked up a small object and appeared to examine it before walking toward the shoreline.

Detectives approached Herz, who placed what they confirmed to be a sea turtle hatchling in the sand, according to the affidavit.

Herz told police he was recording the hatchling with his cellphone, and when asked whether he had a permit to transport a hatchling, he said no, the affidavit said.

Herz was escorted off the beach by police and detained.

Rob Melchiorre, an attorney representing Herz, told the Daily News that police failed to do a thorough investigation of the incident.

If they had, he said, they would have seen that Herz was attempting to rescue a hatchling in distress.

“The whole purpose of the statute is to protect endangered turtles, and that is exactly what he did,” Melchiorre said. “If anyone would have looked at that thoroughly, they would have seen a video showing him rescuing a distressed turtle from the grip of a crab on the beach.”

Also on July 27, police conducted an interview with Morales in response to the original FWC complaint.

Morales confirmed that Stoia walks along the beach to look at turtle nests, takes videos of them, and “helps the turtles out of their nests.”

Based on the information collected, police requested and obtained a search warrant for Stoia’s property.

During their search of the property July 27, they discovered a white laundry basket in the garage that contained approximately 10 wooden stakes with “Do Not Disturb Sea Turtle Nests” signs attached, as well as a hard drive storage unit.

On Aug. 3, police reviewed video from the hard drive — which was recorded July 24 — and saw Stoia “harassing and molesting” sea turtle nests and the hatchlings inside on multiple occasions, and then filming them as they crawled from the beach to the ocean.

A woman identified by police as Barbara Stoia is seen on her hands and knees disturbing a sea turtle nest on the beach near her home on Seminole Avenue in Palm Beach. The image was captured on video stored on a hard drive that was seized from Stoia's home last month.

A woman identified by police as Barbara Stoia is seen on her hands and knees disturbing a sea turtle nest on the beach near her home on Seminole Avenue in Palm Beach. The image was captured on video stored on a hard drive that was seized from Stoia’s home last month.

Stoia was on the beach for about 85 minutes, according to the affidavit.

During this time, Morales was observed attempting to cover the hand-pry marks and shoe prints near the nest.

Stoia and Morales left the beach once they spotted a turtle monitor in the area.

They were arrested two days after police reviewed the video.

“Upon the receipt of a recent complaint regarding the molestation of sea turtle nests and hatchling sea turtles, we looked into the matter,” Rothrock said.

“As a result of this investigation and to our surprise, we ultimately developed probable cause to arrest Barbara Stoia and two of her acquaintances, Frank Herz and Eduan Morales, for violations of the Florida Marine Turtle Protection Act — the same crimes that she had made complaints of others committing.”

Stoia’s attorney, Sean Shecter of Lewis Brisbois in Fort Lauderdale, disputes that his client violated any law.

“Mrs. Meister has been an advocate for alerting the community about the importance of protecting the sea turtle population on the beaches of Palm Beach,” he told the Daily News.

“This has included enlightening the Town of Palm Beach about the issues on the beach which could negatively impact sea turtle nests. We are shocked that she is now accused of harming the very sea turtles she has strived to protect.”

Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach attorney who represents the environmental nonprofit Bear Warriors United, also defended Stoia’s commitment to protecting sea turtle nests in comments to the Town Council on Tuesday.

Stoia is a member of Bear Warriors United, whose stated mission is striving to preserve and protect bears and all of Florida’s natural resources and wildlife.

The organization recently gave the town a 60-day notice of intent to sue based on violations of the federal Endangered Species Act. Bear Warriors United claims the town is not enforcing its own light-restriction rules to protect leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles during nesting season.

In addition, mechanical beach cleaners leave deep ruts in the sand that impede hatchlings from reaching the ocean, improperly marked nests are trod on by tourists unaware of what a white stake in the ground means, and unleashed dogs harass nesting females and new hatchlings, according to the notice.

“I’m disappointed in the town’s apparent vindictive retaliation against its own 30-year resident,” Blackner said.

“Ms. Meister has gathered the proof of poor beach management that is violating the Endangered Species Act. The arrest of Ms. Meister is apparently 100% retaliation for her brave stance on behalf of our beaches’ longest residents, the sea turtles, who have been here for millions of years. The town must do better than attacking its own citizens for seeking change and accountability.”

Morales declined to comment.

Rothrock said he hopes the arrests further educate the public to the importance of not disturbing sea turtle nests or hatchlings.

“We encourage the community to contact us or FWC with any allegations of sea turtle nest or hatchling molestations,” he said.

Jodie Wagner is a journalist at the Palm Beach Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach her at jwagner@pbdailynews.com. Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Palm Beachers charged with illegally disturbing sea turtle nests

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *