NEW YORK - Two former American soldiers - one nicknamed "Rambo" - and a German ex-soldier faced charges Friday that they plotted to kill a U.S. drug enforcement agent and an informant for $800,000 in an assassination plan created by drug agents who wanted to catch trained snipers gone bad, authorities said.
The charges were announced by prosecutors in Manhattan, where an indictment unsealed in federal court portrayed a trio of ex-soldiers eager to kill for money.
"That's fun, actually; for me, that's fun. I love this work," the ex-German soldier was quoted in court papers as saying. The documents described numerous conversations at meetings in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean from January through September that were recorded by Drug Enforcement Administration agents building a case through confidential sources posing as Colombian drug traffickers.
"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," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at a news conference.
The indictment described 48-year-old Joseph Hunter, also known as "Rambo," as a contract killer and leader of the group of ex-snipers. Hunter, a resident of Thailand, was being flown Friday to New York after he was expelled from Thailand, Bharara said. Hunter was to appear in court Saturday.
Hunter recruited several ex-soldiers in late 2012 and early this year to be a security team for drug traffickers, said the indictment. According to the court papers, the DEA's sources promised Hunter at a March meeting in an Asian country that his security team would be protecting thousands of kilograms of marijuana and would be seeing "tons of cocaine and millions of dollars."
Audio and video recordings of the meeting show Hunter discussing "bonus jobs" of contract killings, saying the men he had recruited want to do as much bonus work as possible, the indictment said.
When assassinations of a federal agent and an informant were proposed, Hunter "didn't flinch at the chance," Bharara said. He boasted that his men could handle both jobs, the prosecutor said, adding that "from there, it was off to the races."
Bharara said the motive was "money: greed, plain and simple."
Derek Maltz, special agent in charge of the DEA Special Operations Division, said the snipers were caught by agents dedicated to "outwit them, outwork them, outsmart them and put them out of business."
According to the indictment, Hunter served in the U.S. Army from 1983 to 2004 before becoming a contract killer who successfully arranged several slayings. At one meeting, Hunter was captured on tape describing how he had arranged the killings of real estate agents. Authorities said those killings had occurred outside the United States, though they did not provide specifics.
The indictment said a DEA source posing as a drug trafficker in May proposed to the snipers that they kill a DEA agent and a boat captain providing information to U.S. law enforcement authorities, saying it was necessary because there was a leak within the narcotics trafficking organization.
In an email exchange, Hunter responded: "My guys will handle it. ... Are you talking about both the captain and agent or just the captain?" according to the indictment.
Also charged in the assassination plot with multiple counts of conspiracy were Timothy Vamvakias, 42, and Dennis Gogel, 27, a German citizen. Both men pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges that carry the potential for life imprisonment and were held without bail. Lawyers for both did not immediately return messages for comment.
The indictment said Vamvakias served in the U.S. Army from 1991 to 1993 and from 1999 to 2004. He was a sergeant, serving stints in South Korea and later as a military police officer in Puerto Rico.
Gogel was in the German armed forces from 2007 to 2010, attaining the rank of corporal and receiving commendations for his sniper skills, the court papers said. He was deployed for a time in Kosovo.
Two others were arrested on drug charges. Slawomir Soborski, 40, a citizen of Poland, was a member of an elite counterterrorism unit while serving in the Polish military in two stints between 1998 and 2011. He later worked as a security contractor in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere, court papers said. Michael Filter, 29, served in the German armed forces from 2006 to 2009. Both were in custody in Estonia, awaiting extradition proceedings.
To prepare for the assassination plot, Vamvakias and Gogel offered ideas and plans, including the need for machine guns, cyanide, a grenade, masks and appropriate weapons, the indictment said.
The court papers said Gogel provided the DEA source with two sophisticated latex facemasks that could make the wearer appear to be of another race. The masks were among items Gogel and Vamvakias brought along when they arrived in Liberia on Wednesday planning to carry out the murder-for-hire plot, the indictment said.