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In Real Life, ‘Rambo’ Ends Up as a Soldier of Misfortune, Behind Bars

The New York Times logo The New York Times 12/21/2014 ALAN FEUER
Joseph Hunter, nicknamed Rambo, was led by Thai police officers after his arrest last year. He is facing life in prison. © Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press Joseph Hunter, nicknamed Rambo, was led by Thai police officers after his arrest last year. He is facing life in prison.

Late last year, a strike force of elite Thai police officers descended on the Baan Suan estates, a palm-treed housing complex next to a golf course on the tourist island of Phuket. The officers’ mission was to capture the American expatriate in Villa 34: Joseph Hunter, a retired soldier wanted by his government for having taken up what law enforcement officials called a new career — as a hired killer.

Within three days, Mr. Hunter, a former Army sniper with Special Forces training, was in shackles on an airplane bound for New York, where he was formally accused of managing a team of contract hit men overseas. Law enforcement officials said the group had conspired to murder a federal drug agent and a drug-world informant in exchange for an $800,000 bounty from men they believed were members of a Colombian cartel.

The case against Mr. Hunter, nicknamed Rambo, seemed to have been lifted from the latest action thriller. The hit was set for Liberia and, the Drug Enforcement Administration said, the plans were elaborate; the hired killers asked their employers for sophisticated latex masks to make them look as if they were of a different race and plotted to escape aboard a privately chartered jet. In a more shocking twist, at least for the gunmen, the supposed cartel members employing them were, in reality, D.E.A. agents setting up a sting.

The narrative of the assassination plot may be hard to dispute; Mr. Hunter and his team were caught on audio and video tapes plotting the murders.

But there may be more to the story than the court filings convey. According to Mr. Hunter’s family and his lawyer — and to two federal agents, one current and one retired — the person who set the authorities on Mr. Hunter’s trail was his former boss, Paul Le Roux, a shadowy South African operator who, until recently, was one of the world’s least known but most successful outlaws.

According to the federal agents, Mr. Le Roux was an enterprising criminal who had overseen an empire in illegal guns and drugs that spanned four continents before he turned on Mr. Hunter in an attempt to get a lighter sentence after his own arrest. One of the agents compared Mr. Le Roux, who he said was still in custody, to Viktor Bout, the infamous Russian arms dealer said to be the real-life inspiration for the movie “Lord of War.”

“Le Roux is a bad guy, a very bad guy,” the agent said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because, he said, Mr. Le Roux’s cooperation has been a secret. “He’s Viktor Bout on steroids.”

Mr. Le Roux’s alleged involvement may well complicate what the D.E.A. hoped would be an open-and-shut case against Mr. Hunter, 49, because of the video and audio evidence. Mr. Hunter’s lawyer, Marlon Kirton, contends that his client was entrapped and would never have recruited his team of former military men if the government had not launched a sting against him, after the tip from Mr. Le Roux. Prosecutors contend, however, that Mr. Hunter was caught on tape boasting of having killed two people in the Philippines before the latest plot was hatched, which could complicate an entrapment defense.

Attempts to find a lawyer representing Mr. Le Roux were unsuccessful. There are no public federal documents related to his arrest or alleged cooperation, nor are there references to him in Mr. Hunter’s public court file, which notes that many files are sealed.

Even before Mr. Le Roux reportedly became a government informant, Mr. Hunter’s story was an elaborate tale of international intrigue — of soldiers and soldiers of fortune — that began somewhat improbably in Owensboro, Ky., a tobacco manufacturing hub two hours outside Louisville. Mr. Hunter grew up there and returned in mid-2004 after retiring from the Army.

Not unlike many veterans, Mr. Hunter made a difficult discovery when he got home: It was hard to find civilian work he liked and that made use of the skills he had developed over two decades in uniform.

“He was miserable, frustrated beyond belief,” said his sister, Karen Adams, who lives in Owensboro. Her brother, she recounted, tried to find work as a police officer and as a United States marshal, but she said he was rejected because he was considered too old at 38 even though he was in great shape from weight lifting and martial-arts training.

In 2005, she said, Mr. Hunter reluctantly accepted a position as an inmate counselor at the Green River Correctional Complex, a county prison more than an hour’s drive from Owensboro. He hated it, she said — the drudgery, the physical confinement — and lasted only 15 months.

Looking for a paycheck, and the adrenaline rush of a war zone, he went back, she said, to the type of work he knew best, signing up with DynCorp International, a private security firm. According to Ms. Adams, DynCorp sent him to Iraq, where he worked taking fingerprints and DNA swabs from company employees. Two years later, he joined another firm in Iraq called Triple Canopy, protecting American embassy workers, she said.

It was in 2009, as he became enmeshed in the chummy, macho world of contract security work, that another soldier for hire introduced him to a charismatic businessman named Paul Le Roux, according to Mr. Hunter’s sister. She said that Mr. Le Roux promptly offered her brother a job.

Thus began a three-year stint of travel during which she said Mr. Hunter accompanied Mr. Le Roux on business trips to Brazil, the Republic of Congo, Mali and the Philippines. He was making good money, his sister said, and those who knew him seemed impressed, though perhaps a bit confused, by his glamorous new job.

“All he told me was that he was guarding some millionaire on a yacht, cruising around in Africa,” said Bill Boyd, a fellow Army veteran from Owensboro and one of Mr. Hunter’s oldest friends. “The guy supposedly traded in commodities, and Joe was acting as his bodyguard.”

But according to the federal agents, Mr. Le Roux traded in far more than commodities. The agents confirmed that Mr. Le Roux had been the architect of a prescription pill scheme, with roots in Minnesota and Brazil, in which physicians employed by him provided painkillers to be sold on the Internet. Mr. Le Roux was never named or charged in the case, but both agents acknowledged that he was an unindicted co-conspirator and that he had provided information that led to the indictment of 11 people.

Other authorities also had their eyes on Mr. Le Roux, who is believed to be in his 40s. In July 2011, the United Nations accused him of spending $3 million, including almost $1 million in militia salaries, in violation of an arms embargo in Somalia, adding that one of his partners was also involved in a plot to cultivate hallucinogenic plants at a secret compound near the Ethiopian border.

“Le Roux’s businesses were huge,” said Lachlan McConnell, a security contractor, now based in the Philippines, who is facing charges of helping Mr. Le Roux with the painkiller scheme. “He had operations in Manila, Hong Kong, Colombia, Africa, Brazil. It was guns, gold, drugs, you name it. It was big, really big.”

It remains unclear how much Mr. Hunter knew about his boss’s portfolio, but according to his own account furnished to a court-approved psychologist, he believed that Paul Le Roux was no legitimate businessman. In the summer of 2009, Mr. Hunter said, Mr. Le Roux dispatched him to guard a merchant vessel, the M/V Captain Ufuk, that was supposedly hauling commercial cargo to the Philippines.

But when Mr. Hunter boarded the ship, “he learned that weapons were to be picked up, and he began suspecting that he was involved in an illegal operation,” the psychological evaluation said. The evaluation added that he left the vessel just before it was seized by the Filipino coast guard. A cache of assault rifles was found on board, and officials in Manila filed charges against several people — among them employees of a company in Manila that the United Nations said was run by Mr. Le Roux.

Last week, the captain of the vessel, Lawrence John Burne, was sentenced in absentia — he had jumped bail and fled — for tax evasion related to the gun shipments, according to an online news release from the Philippines Department of Justice. Tax charges in the case are still pending against several of the defendants, including a South African national identified in court documents as John Paul Le Raux.

“Joe was freaked out,” his friend, Mr. Boyd, recalled, but feared for his life if he were to quit, his lawyer said. The evaluation said that Mr. Hunter “began to suspect that, since he was the one renting houses and getting business licenses for Mr. Le Roux’s companies, he was being set up to potentially ‘take the fall’ if the illegal arms activities were discovered.”

In September 2012, Mr. Le Roux was captured in a secret operation in Liberia, the federal agents said, and was taken into custody by the D.E.A.

Four months later, Mr. Hunter’s own troubles started when the D.E.A. sent two undercover agents to meet him in Thailand, posing as members of a Colombian drug cartel.

According to the indictment Mr. Hunter faces, the supposed cartel members offered him a job as their “head of security,” a position that required him to put together a team of able men. By early March, the indictment said, Mr. Hunter had used the Internet to assemble a team: Dennis Gogel, 28, and Michael Filter, 30, both of whom had served with the German armed forces; Slawomir Soborski, a 41-year-old Polish veteran; and Timothy Vamvakias, 43, who had served in the United States Army.

All of the men, including Mr. Hunter, have pleaded not guilty.

After giving their recruits surveillance and security work, the undercover agents in May 2013 offered them what they described as “a bonus job” — a paid assignment to kill a D.E.A. agent and a troublesome informant. “They will handle both jobs,” Mr. Hunter wrote in an email, the indictment says. “They just need good tools.”

And so began a brainstorming session for the hit; Mr. Gogel and Mr. Vamvakias proposed using “machine guns, cyanide or a grenade,” according to the indictment. By midsummer, Mr. Hunter had also emailed the agents a wish list of military hardware: two submachine guns with silencers (he asked for “something small”), two .22-caliber pistols (“these are a must”) and a .308-caliber rifle with a scope.

By the end of August, it was settled that Mr. Gogel and Mr. Vamvakias would carry out the hit. Two Liberian visas were obtained, and Mr. Hunter emailed his employers, saying that his men would arrive in Africa on Sept. 25.

By the time they landed, he had already been arrested.

This summer, Mr. Hunter, who faces life in prison, appeared for a status conference at Federal District Court in Manhattan. His cheeks looked hollow, and his wrists were shackled to his ankles by a chain.

His lawyer, Mr. Kirton, had recently returned from trips to the Philippines and Africa, where he had gone in search of information about Mr. Le Roux. He says he did not learn much and has relatively little time left to do so.

Mr. Hunter’s trial has been scheduled for March 9. One person unlikely to be in attendance: Paul Le Roux.

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