By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.S. Army sergeant nicknamed "Rambo" who prosecutors say supervised an international band of hit men and mercenaries was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for conspiring to kill a federal drug agent and an informant.
U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan said Joseph Hunter, 51, deserved a lengthy sentence given the "grave and serious" crimes he committed and his guilty plea to charges including that he conspired to murder a law enforcement officer.
"The crimes you committed are serious, and the sentence you received today reflects that," Swain said.
Hunter, a former Army sergeant with over 20 years of military experience, apologized in court, saying he would still be with his family "if I only asked myself what God would have wanted me to do."
The case stemmed from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that followed the arrest in Liberia in 2012 of Hunter's boss, Paul Le Roux, the Zimbabwe-born head of a multinational criminal organization.
Le Roux subsequently agreed to cooperate with authorities, admitting to his involvement in shipping drugs and weapons around the world and to having ordered various murders, according to court records.
Le Roux also helped authorities pursue cases against others, including Hunter, who prosecutors said had performed and overseen contract killings and other violent crimes for him.
During a sting operation, Hunter, at Le Roux's request, assembled a team of former soldiers to provide security to DEA informants posing as Colombian drug traffickers, according to court papers.
Hunter's mercenary squad used Thailand as its base and performed several tasks in 2013, including assisting a purported 300-kilogram cocaine transaction in the Bahamas, prosecutors said.
For $800,000, Hunter and two ex-soldiers, Dennis Gogel of Germany and former U.S. Army Sergeant Timothy Vamvakias, also agreed to assassinate a DEA agent and an agency source in Liberia, prosecutors said.
No murders occurred, though prosecutors said Hunter previously had organized seven murders-for-hire, including of a Philippines woman whose death is the subject of a related case.
Hunter was arrested in Thailand in 2013, and authorities also arrested Gogel, Vamvakias and two other members of Hunter's team, Slawomir Soborski of Poland and Michael Filter of Germany.
The defendants later pleaded guilty. Vamvakias and Gogel were sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Filter received an eight-year term. Soborski's sentencing is set for June 10.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)