An active-duty Navy SEAL was found guilty Friday in Nevada on 13 federal charges alleging he headed a scheme to sell machine guns, explosives and military hardware from Iraq and Afghanistan in the United States.
Petty Officer Nicholas Bickle stood straight in uniform while the verdict was read in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, then huddled quietly afterward in the courtroom with his parents and sister.
Bickle's lawyer, James Pokorny, characterized Bickle and his family as "chagrined" at the verdict, which the lawyer acknowledged could lead to a dishonorable discharge from the Navy and the loss of benefits.
Seventy-two weapons were involved in the case, including more than 30 machine guns, said Thomas L. Chittum III, head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Las Vegas. While the firearms were found to be stolen, testimony and evidence didn't establish how they got into the U.S.
Chittum called the case revolving around allegations of war materiel being marketed in the U.S. by a decorated special forces member "an aberration."
"It's unthinkable that someone with his experience would sell guns like this on the streets of the United States," the ATF agent said.
The case hinged on an investigation last year by undercover ATF agents who enlisted a man who later pleaded guilty to conspiring in the scheme for the purchase of high-powered and hard-to-trace machine guns.
Authorities seized handguns and a component for an AK-47 in raids in November at Bickle's apartment in San Diego, and a storage unit he leased in nearby El Cajon. Raids also were conducted in Las Vegas and at the Durango, Colo., where agents were surprised to find five pounds of military C-4 explosive at the home of a close Bickle friend, Richard Paul.
Paul, 35, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy and explosives transport charges and faces 15 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine at sentencing Oct. 28.
The prosecutors in the case, Timothy S. Vasquez and Phillip N. Smith Jr., alleged that profit was the motive for the weapons sales.
Prosecutors accused Bickle of controlling the sale of military hardware ranging from ammunition to night-vision goggles and high-tech rifle targeting scopes. They made closing arguments to the jury amid an array of AK-47 and M92 machine guns, a sniper rifle, a wheeled footlocker with a false bottom and handguns including Ruger 9mm weapons of the type used by the U.S. military.
Smith cited bank records, text messages, phone calls and emails between Bickle and others in the case. He told jurors that like a target sighted through the rifle scopes, the evidence pointed to Bickle.
Pokorny maintained the government case was circumstantial and never proved a link between Bickle and the weapons. He asked the jury to consider whether a decorated and accomplished special forces member who had a role in the 2011 movie "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" would risk everything in a scheme to sell arms in the U.S.
Bickle, 34, was acquitted of two of six charges of possession and transfer of a machine gun. He was found guilty of a total of 13 counts, including conspiracy to deal in stolen firearms; dealing in firearms without a license; possession and transfer of machine guns; possession, concealment, sale and disposition of stolen firearms; receiving, concealing and retaining property of the United States; and transportation and distribution of explosives.
He could face 125 years in prison and $3.25 million in fines. However, federal sentencing guidelines are expected to provide for a prison sentence of less than 20 years. Judge Roger Hunt let him remain free with an electronic monitor to return to his Navy base and home in San Diego pending sentencing Jan. 20.
Pokorny promised to appeal the verdict and seek probation.
"There was no fingerprint evidence, no DNA evidence," he said. "The bulk of the prosecution case was based on testimony and facts founded upon statements of drug users, convicted felons, drug addicts and arms smugglers."
Pokorny derided the testimony of Paul and two other former co-defendants who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government in hopes of leniency at their own sentencing.
Andrew Kaufman, 37, of Las Vegas, pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy and illegal transfer of a machine gun charges. He faces 5 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine at sentencing Oct. 28.
Omar Aguirre, 36, of Las Vegas, the man who authorities say facilitated the weapon sales, pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy. He faces five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine at sentencing Oct. 14.
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