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Headed Ring That Smuggled Hardware to Iran : Prison Terms Given Pair in Theft of Jet Parts

Times Staff Writer

Two brothers who masterminded a ring that smuggled stolen Navy jet fighter parts to Iran were sentenced to prison terms by a U.S. District Court judge Monday, despite efforts by one defendant to withdraw his guilty plea and take the case to trial.

Judge Leland Nielsen sentenced Franklin Agustin, 48, of San Diego, the ring’s West Coast kingpin, to 13 years in custody and ordered that he pay a $100,000 fine for his role in funneling an estimated $7 million in F-14 jet parts to the Persian Gulf nation. The defendant, who suffers from a serious lung infection, will initially be held at the federal medical facility in Springfield, Mo.

Edgardo Agustin, meanwhile, lost a bid to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial on as many as 90 counts of conspiracy, interstate transport of stolen federal property, exportation of military equipment and making false statements. The 46-year-old defendant from Jamaica, N.Y., instead received an 18-year prison term and was fined $100,000.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Philip Halpern, who prosecuted the government’s case along with Charles S. Crandall, called the sentences “gratifying” and “befitting the severity of these offenses.” The prosecutors had, however, sought a 27-year prison term for Edgardo Agustin, the maximum penalty possible under his plea bargain.

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The Agustins were the last of 10 people sentenced in connection with the international smuggling ring, which operated from at least 1981 until 1985. According to prosecutors, the smuggling operation sold military hardware stolen from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, other ships and the Naval Supply Depot at North Island.

Federal agents say Franklin Agustin cultivated a network of sailors and Navy civilian employees to obtain the parts and ran the ring from his National City insurance office. His brother, Edgardo, used an East Coast company to ship the stolen jet parts--including flight computers and parts for the Phoenix missile--to England. From there, they were sold to Iran, a country that needs spare parts for its American-made jets.

Last summer, prosecutors in the highly publicized case struck a plea bargain with defense attorneys for the two Filipino brothers, who pleaded guilty to four felony counts.

But in a surprise move, Edgardo Agustin in November sought to withdraw his guilty plea on grounds that he was misled by his New York City attorney, Lonn E. Berney. The defendant also said he never would have agreed to a plea bargain had he known that U.S. officials were secretly selling arms to Iran.

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On Monday, Agustin’s new lawyer, Lynn Ball of San Diego, attempted to convince Judge Nielsen that his client was “duped” by Berney, who Ball said had “promised” Agustin that he would spend no more than five years in prison under the plea bargain.

“I trusted him. . . . He had a brochure that said he was an undefeated lawyer,” Agustin said. He added that he pleaded guilty and testified under oath that he had, indeed, shipped the parts to Iran only because Berney told him to do so.

“You mean to say that when you were asked, under oath, whether you caused a carton (of parts) to be shipped from San Diego . . . to England, and you answered yes, you were lying?” Crandall asked Agustin Monday.

“Yes,” the defendant replied. "(Berney) told me to say yes on everything, on all the questions.”

Agustin also argued Monday that revelations about the Reagan Administration’s sale of arms to Iran were grounds for permitting him to change his plea.

Elsewhere in the country, news of the the government’s covert provision of arms to Iran has disrupted the prosecution of individuals charged with violating embargoes stemming from the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Nielsen, however, rejected Agustin’s claim that he was misled by his attorney and was clearly unimpressed with the defendant’s attempt to link his case with the Iran-contras affair unfolding in Washington. The judge has said the government dealings have no bearing on this case.


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