March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

He’s been called thief, smuggler, evil, pariah. Armed federal agents stormed his home. He could wind up spending a year in jail. And all because some people believe James Kovach stole a flower.

Okay, so it’s not just any flower. It’s “the most spectacular orchid of the last 100 years,” says John Beckner of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a key player in this seedy saga. It began last May, when Kovach, 47, owner of a tiny greenhouse in Goldvein, Va., went flower shopping with wife Barbara, 49, in Moyobamba, Peru, known as Orchid City. At a roadside stand he bought a foot-tall magenta flower for about $3. “We didn’t quite know what it was,” he says, “but we were pretty-sure we found something special.”

Kovach brought it back to the U.S. and took it to Selby Gardens, a premier botanical society in Sarasota, Fla. “Everybody said, ‘Wow,’ ” recalls curator Beckner, who identified it as a new and dramatically larger species of orchid, published a paper naming it Phragmipedium kovachii—a coup for a small breeder like Kovach—and returned it to a museum in Peru.

The problem? That species is endangered and can only be taken out of Peru for cultural or scientific reasons. Kovach failed to get the necessary permit and may have violated a law designed to stop orchid smuggling: A single kovachii could fetch $20,000 on the black market and millions more if bred. Kovach says he had no idea the flower was endangered. Yet Alfredo Manrique, president of Peru’s Orchid Club, insists Kovach “can’t say he didn’t know this was illegal. Now, in the orchid world, he is a leper.”

Last Aug. 16 six investigators from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency seized tax records and plants from Kovach’s home. He remains under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office, and his income from breeding and lecturing has dried up like a wilted you-know-what. “My life is ruined,” says Kovach. “The bottom line is, it’s just a flower. Everybody’s lost their mind.”

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