Navy Worker Turns Witness in F-14 Case : Quito Admits Taking Jet Parts at North Island as Part of Smuggling Ring, Documents Reveal
A Navy warehouse worker has turned government witness and confessed to stealing more than $300,000 in F-14 jet fighter parts from North Island Naval Air Station as part of a smuggling ring that allegedly sent millions of dollars of stolen equipment to Iran, according to documents obtained by The Times.
Pedro M. Quito, 60, a civilian, told prosecutors that he was paid $10,000 to $14,000 to deliver the stolen parts to Frank Agustin, a local insurance agent and the man the government says ran a San Diego-based smuggling ring by relying on sailors and U.S. Navy civilian personnel. They were able to violate the military supply system by manipulating computers or by simply taking items from supply depot shelves, prosecutors say.
Quito confessed to the thefts and gave the first description of his participation in the alleged ring in a 19-page sworn statement to federal prosecutors Tuesday, made in lieu of appearing before a federal grand jury. Although federal prosecutors say the document was to remain confidential until Quito testifies in court, it was given to The Times by Quito’s attorney, Walter Lundstein. Court documents filed or unsealed Tuesday show that the warehouse worker turned government witness and pleaded guilty to three charges as part of a plea-bargain agreement.
Quito’s plea agreement with the government was characterized by Assistant U.S. Atty. Steve Crandall as a “fairly significant” development in the highly publicized case, which has underscored the vulnerability of the military supply system to theft and espionage. In all, eight people have been arrested in connection with the San Diego ring, including Agustin, 47, and his wife, Julie, 46, both of San Diego.
Besides Quito, other Navy personnel arrested include Primitivo B. Cayabyab, a 17-year veteran storekeeper aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk; Antonio G. Rodriguez, a 16-year veteran storekeeper aboard the amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood, and Daniel Wheeler, 33, a Massachusetts man who was a civilian employee at the Naval Air Rework Facility North, in Norfolk, Va.
Federal authorities, who made extensive use of wiretaps in the case, broke the ring in July when they executed search warrants for Agustin’s Tierrasanta home and a nearby self-storage locker, among other locations.
They say the alleged ring’s activities began in 1981 and ranged from San Diego to the Philippines, Virginia, New York and London in a network feeding some of the Free World’s most sophisticated weaponry to the hard-pressed Iranian military.
In contrast to the national-security implications of the case, the smuggling ring’s methods--as described in Quito’s confession--seem almost routine. Here is what happened, according to Quito’s sworn statement:
Quito said he began stealing from North Island’s Fleet Avionic Logistics Support Center after he met Agustin in June, 1982, through Julie Agustin. She was working as a travel agent in National City and sold Quito round-trip tickets to the Philippines. He said Agustin gave him two sport shirts during their first meeting, and at a subsequent meeting tried unsuccessfully to interest the warehouse worker in helping with the legal purchase of military equipment.
A month later, Augustin met Quito again and this time handed him a list of stock and part numbers for F-14 parts he wanted Quito to steal from the Navy.
Quito said he was scared at first, but Agustin encouraged him to falsify government documents to cover his tracks. He also said Agustin bragged of other people who “worked for him” who had the “mortgage paid, and some are even driving (a) Mercedes-Benz.”
Agustin eventually told Quito he had “about five people working for him on the Kitty Hawk and some at Miramar” Naval Air Station and that some involved were chief petty officers, the document said.
After several months of trying, Quito said, he was not able to locate any of the 20 parts in the North Island supply center, although Agustin called every two weeks or so and encouraged him to keep looking. He said that in December, 1982, Julie Agustin remarked, “Pete, you are the only one who haven’t (sic) scored yet.”
The warehouse worker testified that he was given a second shopping list by Agustin in January, 1983. Quito responded by stealing circuit cards and a jet engine vane assembly, which he simply took off the shelves and put in a paper bag. He then drove without question past guards and off the base, the confession said.
Agustin rewarded Quito with $250. “Is that all I get?” Quito complained.
More money was to be made off Agustin’s third shopping list, given to Quito in mid-1983. The list was 10 pages long and contained 200 items, including a $77,000 F-14 part called a gimbal assembly that Quito stole in November, 1983, according to his confession.
Agustin rewarded Quito with $3,000, and the warehouse man stole three more assemblies and other smaller items--such as gaskets and seals--before he was arrested in July.
Quito said he tried on occasion to stop stealing, but Agustin pressured him by “holding (back) the money he was supposed to pay me.”
Quito said Agustin paid him $10,000 to $14,000 altogether for the thefts--money he subsequently lost at the racetrack, the document said.
He declined further comment during a telephone interview Tuesday, except to say he bet his money at the Caliente track in Tijuana. “I don’t want the public to know the reason why I did it,” Quito said. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I want my story to be published.”
Lundstein, Quito’s attorney, said his client decided to become a government witness because he “literally wants to repent” for the thefts.
Lundstein speculated that Quito, a retired sailor who began working at North Island to supplement his military pension, began stealing to counter a depression he felt after leaving the Navy.
“You’re deprived of an entire emotional support system that makes you the person you are,” Lundstein said. “Anything that relieves depression is something that stimulates emotion.”
J. William Beard Jr., Agustin’s attorney, said Quito’s cooperation with the U.S. attorney’s office was not a surprise. “I kind of knew that he already rolled,” said Beard. “I haven’t seen the documents, and I haven’t seen what the accusations were against my client. . . . (It) means to me that Pete Quito thinks that he was guilty of something.”
In exchange for his cooperation, prosecutors have agreed to dropped a 61-count indictment against Quito. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiring to defraud the government, and pleaded guilty on Sept. 18 to one count of theft of government property and one count of exporting defense articles.