Celebrity Designer Nancy Gonzalez Jailed for Smuggling Crocodile, Python Handbags

By Madz Dizon

Apr 22, 2024 09:56 PM EDT

Celebrity Designer Nancy Gonzalez Jailed for Smuggling Crocodile, Python Handbags
A Matte White Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Diamond Birkin with 18K gold and diamond hardware -- one of the most valuable handbags in the world -- sits on display during a preview at Christies in Hong Kong on May 4, 2016. (photo used as representation only)
(Photo : ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

A famous fashion designer whose accessories have been worn by celebrities ranging from Britney Spears to the stars of the 'Sex and the City' TV series was sentenced to 18 months in jail on Monday after pleading guilty in Miami federal court to importing crocodile handbags from her home Colombia.

Nancy Gonzalez was arrested in Cali, Colombia, in 2022 and later extradited to the United States for orchestrating a sprawling multiyear conspiracy that involved recruiting couriers to transport her handbags on commercial flights to high-end showrooms and New York fashion events, all in violation of US wildlife laws.

Colombian Handbag Designer Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison

According to The Guardian, Gonzalez's lawyers sought leniency for the celebrity designer, citing her rise from a divorced single mother of two who produced belts for friends on a home sewing machine in California to a fashion icon who outperformed Dior, Prada, and Gucci. 

According to the attorneys, the 71-year-old designer has already paid a high price for her misdeeds.

The Colombian company she founded, which had employed 300 largely female employees, filed bankruptcy and ceased operations following her imprisonment. 

They also claimed that only 1% of the items she imported into the United States lacked official authorization and were samples for New York Fashion Week and other events. 

Gonzalez, speaking to the court before being sentenced, expressed her sincere regret for not strictly adhering to US regulations and stated that her only wish is to hug her 103-year-old mother again.

Prosecutors contended that Gonzalez had amassed significant income and led a lavish lifestyle, which contrasted with the couriers she hired to bring her items into the United States. If customs agents inquired about the items, the couriers were told to respond that they were gifts for their family.

According to the testimony of her co-defendants and her employees, Gonzalez, characterized as a micro-manager, would recruit up to 40 passengers to carry four expensive handbags apiece on commercial flights ahead of major fashion shows.

In this way, investigators estimate that she trafficked products worth up to $2 million in the United States. Gonzalez's attorneys contested the assertion, claiming that each skin cost only about $140.

The hides were all from captive-bred caiman and pythons. Nonetheless, on some occasions, she failed to secure the necessary import authorizations from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by a widely ratified international convention governing the trade in endangered and threatened wildlife species.

In 2016 and 2017, she was warned by US officials not to break such restrictions, making her actions even more "egregious," Judge Robert Scola said in imposing his sentence, as per USA Today.

Prosecutors had requested a heavier sentence of 30 to 37 months. However, Scola stated that he was taking into account the approximately 14 months she spent in harsher conditions in a Colombian prison while awaiting extradition.

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Nancy Gonzalez's Sentence to Begin on June 6

Gonzalez, who has been out on a bail and confined at her daughter's home in Miami, must surrender on June 6 to begin her sentence.

Although trafficking in Gonzalez's skins was not forbidden, they came from protected animals, which is subject to careful monitoring under the Convention on International trafficking in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

Salma Hayek, Britney Spears, and Victoria Beckham are among the celebrities who have purchased Gonzalez's meticulously designed bags. Her work was also featured in a 2008 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gonzalez's counsel presented in court a video from 2019 of top buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, and other stores praising the designer's innovation, productivity, and humanity, which prosecutor Assistant US Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald claimed the retailers would certainly regret now.

READ MORE: Russia Sentences Meta Platforms Spokesperson Andy Stone to 6 Years in Prison for Publicly Defending 'Terrorism' 

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