Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that JOSEPH HUNTER, a former member of the U.S. Army, was sentenced today to 20 years in prison based on his convictions for conspiracy to murder an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) and a DEA informant, conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. HUNTER pled guilty on February 13, 2015, before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who imposed today’s sentence.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “The sentencing of Joseph Hunter, an admitted contract killer, convicted drug trafficker, and ringleader of trained assassins, ends another chapter in a chilling criminal case that spanned the globe. Hunter and his cohorts turned from serving their countries as soldiers to becoming mercenaries for hire, plotting to kill a DEA agent and informant and trafficking in massive quantities of cocaine. Thanks to the outstanding investigative work of the DEA, these soldiers of fortune have met their rightful fate, long sentences in federal prison.”
According to the Indictment and Superseding Indictments filed against HUNTER and co-defendants Timothy Vamvakias, Dennis Gogel, Slawomir Soborski, and Michael Filter; other documents publicly filed in this case; and statements made during court proceedings, including today’s sentencing:
All five defendants previously served in the armed forces of their respective nations. HUNTER served in the U.S. Army between approximately 1983 and 2004; Vamvakias served in the U.S. Army between approximately 1991 and 2004; Gogel served in the German armed forces until 2010; Filter served in the German armed forces until 2009; and Soborski served in the Polish armed forces until 2011. HUNTER served as a sniper instructor and a senior drill sergeant, training other soldiers in marksmanship and tactics. Vamvakias attained the rank of sergeant and served both as infantryman and a military police officer. Gogel, Soborski, and Filter were also trained as snipers.
In 2013, HUNTER recruited Vamvakias, Gogel, Soborski, and Filter to serve as security for a Colombian drug trafficking organization and to perform contract killings. For example, in March 2013, HUNTER described the work to Soborski, Filter, and Gogel as follows: “It’s just like a military mission. Right. This is a real [expletive]. You know, you see everything. You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Well, you’re gonna do it now.” During the same recorded meeting, HUNTER described in detail his previous participation in weapons trafficking, using grenades to conduct an attack, and shootings, as well as his participation in two actual murders-for-hire in the Philippines.
During meetings in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean that began in January 2013 and continued through late September 2013, HUNTER communicated with three confidential sources (the “CSs”) working with the DEA, who purported to be Colombian narcotics traffickers. HUNTER agreed to serve as the head of security for the CSs’ purported narcotics trafficking organization, and assembled a “security team” consisting of Vamvakias, Gogel, Filter, and Soborski. HUNTER explained to his co-defendants that this work would involve “tons of cocaine” and “millions of dollars,” and that they would also have the opportunity to do “bonus work, that is, assassination” for which they would be paid at least $25,000, and “depending on the threat level, the price goes up.”
HUNTER and his co-defendants thereafter agreed, in meetings and communications with the CSs, to provide security and surveillance services to the narcotics trafficking organization. In late-March 2013, in Thailand, Gogel, Filter, and Soborski surveilled a vessel on behalf of the CSs’ purported narcotics trafficking organization and reported their activities to HUNTER. In April 2013, in Mauritius, at the direction of the CSs, Gogel, Filter, and Soborski provided security for meetings at which the participants – including Scott Stammers and Philip Shackels, who were later extradited to the Southern District of New York and pled guilty to a drug-trafficking offense before U.S. District Judge Andrew L. Carter, Jr., in United States v. Stammers, et al., 13 Cr. 579 (ALC) (S.D.N.Y.) – discussed actual weapons trafficking activities and the distribution of illegal narcotics to the United States. In late June 2013, Vamvakias, Gogel, Filter, and Soborski conducted surveillance of a purported U.S.-registered aircraft at the direction of the third CS (“CS-3”), who posed as a member of the CSs’ narcotics trafficking organization. CS-3 informed the defendants that the aircraft was to be loaded with 300 kilograms of cocaine to be shipped to New York. The security team reported their activities to HUNTER.
Furthermore, HUNTER, Vamvakias, and Gogel agreed to commit murders-for-hire in Liberia by assassinating both a DEA Special Agent and a person who, according to the CSs, was providing information to the DEA about the CSs’ narcotics trafficking organization. In exchange for the murders, Vamvakias and Gogel were together to be paid approximately $700,000, and HUNTER was to receive an additional $100,000 for supervising the hit team. Communications between the defendants and the CSs occurred by telephone, over e-mail, and in a series of surreptitiously audio-recorded and videotaped meetings over an approximately nine-month period.
In mid-May 2013, at a meeting with the CSs in Thailand, HUNTER, Vamvakias, Gogel, and Soborski were told that a “bonus job” – that is, a contract killing – was in the offing, due to a leak within the CSs’ narcotics trafficking organization. In late May 2013, in email communications, HUNTER confirmed that his team would be willing to murder both a U.S. law enforcement agent and a source (a boat captain), who was purportedly providing information to U.S. law enforcement authorities about the CSs’ narcotics trafficking organization. HUNTER confirmed by email that his team would kill both the DEA agent and the informant. At a meeting in late June 2013, CS-3 explained to Vamvakias and Gogel that “the job is to kill a U.S. DEA agent and a source with the DEA,” who would be located in Liberia. Vamvakias and Gogel discussed the weapons that could be used and masks to be worn for the murders, and Vamvakias stated that it would be better to “hit the agent first” and then “the snitch.” In early July 2013, HUNTER sent via e-mail a list of the items needed for the murders, including “[t]wo Submachine Guns with silencers . . . [t]wo .22 pistols with Silencers.”
In mid-August 2013, at a meeting in Thailand, HUNTER, Vamvakias, and Gogel discussed in detail the weapons that would be used and the possibility of entering Liberia without having their passports stamped. They suggested that CS-3 fly them out of the country via private plane following the murders. Vamvakias stated that, among other weapons, a sub-machine gun and two .22 caliber pistols would be needed for the murders, and CS-3 agreed to deliver the weapons to Liberia. The next day, at a meeting with Gogel, CS-3 confirmed that an order for the requested weapons had been made. Later that same day, Gogel met again with CS-3 and provided CS-3 with two highly sophisticated latex facemasks, which can make the wearer appear to be of another race, for CS-3 to transport to Liberia.
In late September 2013, Vamvakias and Gogel arrived in Liberia to commit the planned murders-for-hire.
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In addition to the prison sentence, Judge Swain also sentenced HUNTER, 51, to 10 years of supervised release and to pay a $300 special assessment.
Vamvakias, 44, pled guilty on January 9, 2015, to conspiracy to murder a DEA agent and a DEA informant, conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine on board an aircraft, and was sentenced by Judge Swain on July 16, 2015, to 20 years in prison. Gogel, 30, pled guilty on January 13, 2015, to conspiracy to murder a DEA agent and a DEA informant, conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine on board an aircraft, and was sentenced by Judge Swain on September 24, 2015, to 20 years in prison. Filter, 31, pled guilty on February 10, 2015, to conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and was sentenced by Judge Swain on September 9, 2015, to eight years in prison. Finally, Soborski, 44, pled guilty on February 10, 2015, to conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Swain on June 10, 2016.
Today’s sentencing was the result of the close cooperative efforts of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York; DEA’s Special Operations Division; DEA’s Bangkok, Ghana, Pretoria, Bucharest, Manila, Nassau and Copenhagen Offices; the Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau and Crime Suppression Division; the Royal Thai Immigration; the Royal Thai Attorney General’s Office; Republic of Liberia’s National Security Agency; the Republic of Liberia’s Attorney General’s Office; the Estonian Police and Border Guard; the Estonian National Criminal Police, Investigative Bureau; the Estonian State Prosecutors Office; the Royal Bahamas Police Force and Drug Enforcement Unit; Interpol; and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.
The prosecution is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Emil J. Bove III, Michael D. Lockard, Aimee Hector, and Anna Skotko are in charge of the prosecution.