US police arrest former soldiers who became contract killers
Gang with links in Southeast Asia planned to murder US anti-drugs officer and informant
His nickname was Rambo. He was a former sergeant in the US Army, and he trained soldiers to be snipers. But after leaving the military in 2004, the US authorities say, he put his skills to work in a less honourable way - earning a living as a contract killer.
In the spring, Joseph Hunter and two other former soldiers agreed to murder an agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and one of that agency's confidential informers, both in Liberia, West Africa, for a total of US$800,000, federal prosecutors said on Friday in Manhattan.
The plot had been proposed by men who held themselves out as Colombian drug traffickers, an indictment says.
"My guys will handle it," Hunter wrote in an e-mail on May 30, responding to a question as to whether his team would be willing to carry out the killings, the indictment charges.
In fact, the authorities said, the purported drug traffickers were confidential sources for the DEA and part of an undercover sting operation that ultimately led to the arrests of Hunter and two other soldiers - another former US Army sergeant, Timothy Vamvakias, and a former German corporal, Dennis Gogel. All three were charged with conspiracy to murder the agent and the informer, as well as conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.
Hunter was taken into custody in Thailand, Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, told a news conference.
Hunter and five other suspects arrested during a sting operation on the resort island of Phuket were sent to the US on a chartered plane.
"This group was considered to be a big network that spanned many countries," including Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines, Thai deputy police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang said.
Two other men, Michael Filter and Slawomir Soborski, who served in the German and Polish militaries respectively, were also arrested in Estonia and charged in the drug trafficking conspiracy, US prosecutors said.
"The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends," Bharara said.
"The bone-chilling allegations in today's indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel," he said.
"Three of the defendants were ready, willing and eager to take cold hard cash to commit the cold-blooded murders of a DEA agent and an informant."
US investigators tracked the suspects in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, the indictment said.
Hunter referred to contract assassinations euphemistically as "bonus work" or "bonus jobs", the indictment says, adding that he told the confidential informers that he had done such work before. Bharara said Hunter had arranged successfully for the murders "of numerous people", though he did not name them.
The indictment says Hunter began collecting details for prospective members of his "security team", which had planned to use pistols and submachine guns with silencers to carry out the murders. Gogel told one of the drug agency informers that the murders could be made to resemble an ordinary street crime, "like a bad robbery or anything, you know," the indictment says.
Hunter told co-conspirators that they would be working for a Colombian cartel and that they could expect to "see tons of cocaine and millions of dollars", the indictment says. They would also have the opportunity to participate in assassinations, he told them, according to the indictment. "Most of the bonus work is up close ... because in the cities ... you don't get long-range shots," the indictment quotes him as saying.
Part of an escape plan involved the use of sophisticated latex face masks that would make the wearer appear to be of another race, the indictment said.
Vamvakias, describing the proposed murders of the DEA agent and the informer, was quoted in the indictment as saying, "You know, we gotta do this, hit it hard, hit it fast, make sure it's done," and then leave.
"That's the biggest headache," he added. "The job's not the headache; it's getting in and out."
The case, with its use of confidential informers posing as drug traffickers, had echoes of other DEA international sting operations, like the one in 2008 that ensnared the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who was taken to the United States and tried and convicted in 2011.
Additional reporting by Associated Press