18 Charged in Plan to Smuggle Arms Into U.S.
Federal authorities charged 18 people Tuesday in a scheme to illegally import surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles and other weapons from Eastern Europe into the United States.
An FBI informant, who posed as an arms buyer with links to international terrorist groups, negotiated to buy millions of dollars in illegal weapons from the defendants, officials said.
The case against the accused arms smugglers -- who were arrested Monday night and Tuesday morning in New York, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- was based on more than 15,000 wiretapped telephone conversations over the course of a year and round-the-clock surveillance, Manhattan U.S. Atty. David N. Kelley said.
“This case has disrupted a potential overseas pipeline for dangerous military weaponry to come into the hands of civilians or even terrorists,” Kelley said at a news conference in Lower Manhattan.
Although none of those arrested were thought to be linked to terrorist groups, he added, “these defendants were unfazed and perhaps didn’t care who the user was so long as they were getting the money.”
The FBI, other federal agencies and the New York Police Department joined in the investigation, authorities said.
Five of the defendants were charged with conspiring to smuggle destructive devices such as rocket launchers and anti-tank missile systems into the U.S.; the 13 others were charged with smuggling machine guns and other assault weapons into the country that were sold to the informant. Five of the defendants were charged with conspiring to acquire weapons for sale.
The defendants are from Armenia, Georgia, Russia and the U.S.
Two of the defendants were thought to be ringleaders: Artur Solomonyan, 26, an Armenian citizen living in both Los Angeles and New York, and Christiaan Dewet Spies, 33, a South African citizen living in New York. Each faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Three others charged in the weapons trafficking scheme, Ioseb Kharbadze, Joseph Colpani and Michael Guy Demare, face possible prison terms of five to 20 years. The remaining defendants face five to 15 years in prison.
Although the defendants planned to import hundreds of weapons, officials said, the group smuggled just eight, including machine guns and assault rifles, into the U.S., hiding them at sites in New York, Los Angeles and Florida.
Federal officials said they arrested Spies and Solomonyan on Monday night, as they gathered at a Manhattan hotel to meet with the informant.
The two men were planning to travel to Europe to acquire millions of dollars in weapons, and the informant promised to give them phony green cards so that they could reenter the U.S.
Kelley said the wiretaps told the story of a plan hatched in late 2003, when Spies spoke to the informant by phone and said he could help him acquire an array of destructive weapons through Russian organized-crime contacts. Several months later, officials said, Spies introduced the informant to Solomonyan at a New York restaurant, and over dinner the two defendants told the informant they could help him buy $2.5 million in weapons. Officials did not disclose whether the weapons were to have come from military sources or through the black market.
Eventually, the defendants gave the informant access to a Russian website with photos of weapons for sale, officials said.
“It doesn’t appear there was any direct connection by these individuals to terrorism,” New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview on CNN, after the news conference. “This is the age-old story of people doing anything for money.... It was not motivated by ideology.”
The 10 defendants arrested in New York were arraigned Tuesday in federal court and remained in custody pending bail hearings.
The six defendants arrested in Los Angeles and the two arrested in Florida will be taken to New York to face charges, officials said.
The Justice Department has prosecuted two other cases in which allegations of arms trafficking and terrorism were never fully proved.
In one criminal prosecution that is underway, federal authorities allege that British businessman Hemant Lakhani brokered the sale of one shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile and was trying to buy and sell an additional 50 missiles to a Somali terrorist organization. One of his alleged associates, Manthena Raja, pleaded guilty last September to one count of federal money-laundering violations.
But Lakhani has denied the charges, saying he is the victim of an entrapment operation by American, British and Russian intelligence agencies under pressure to catch terrorist suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks.
And in New York, two men suspected of having links with Al Qaeda were charged with plotting to purchase a missile, after a sting operation on a mosque in Albany, the state capital. That case is pending.
Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.
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