By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.S. soldier accused of recruiting an international team of military-trained snipers to carry out contract killings for a drug cartel pleaded guilty in New York federal court on Friday.
Joseph Manuel Hunter, 49, who prosecutors said was known as "Rambo," faces between 10 years and life in prison when he is sentenced in May for conspiring to murder a law enforcement officer and two other charges.
Hunter was one of five former soldiers charged in 2013 with agreeing to provide security and surveillance for two purported Colombian cartel leaders.
Those leaders, however, were actually informants for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Hunter, thinking of his family, decided to avoid a trial scheduled for March 9 despite believing the government unlawfully entrapped him, his defense lawyer Marlon Kirton said after Friday's hearing.
Hunter, who served as a sniper instructor in the U.S. Army, is the fourth defendant to plead guilty after former U.S. Army Sergeant Timothy Vamvakias, former German sniper Dennis Gogel and former Polish sniper Slawomir Soborski.
The fifth man charged in the case, Michael Filter, a former German military sniper, is scheduled to go on trial June 1.
Prosecutors said Hunter had worked as a killer-for-hire since leaving the Army in 2004 and arranged for several murders, though the details of any killings are not publicly known.
In a series of meetings in 2013 in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Hunter met the two undercover agents and agreed to serve as head of security for their cartel, according to court documents.
He assembled the team of former soldiers and began providing a variety of services to the supposed cartel, prosecutors said.
Hunter, Gogel and Vamvakias agreed to assassinate a DEA agent and an informant in Liberia in exchange for $800,000, U.S. authorities said. The murders were never carried out.
In January, Kirton moved to dismiss the case, accusing the government of entrapment. He also faulted prosecutors for using a violent criminal who had previously threatened Hunter's life as one of the cooperating witnesses involved in the sting.
"What choice did Mr. Hunter have" but to follow his boss's instructions to murder the DEA agent and informant, Kirton wrote.
In response, prosecutors said in court papers that using a criminal as a cooperator is common in such cases.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Ingram and Tom Brown)