Navy SEAL weapons case trial nears end in Vegas
LAS VEGAS (AP) – An active-duty Navy SEAL sat in his blue uniform and medals before a federal court jury on Wednesday, while prosecutors cast him as a greedy war profiteer who smuggled machine guns from Iraq and Afghanistan and conspired with others to sell guns, explosives and military hardware in the United States.
Nicholas Bickle, 34, sat expressionless as Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip N. Smith Jr. held aloft AK-47 and M92 machine guns, a sniper rifle and other weapons that Bickle is accused of dealing.
He called for jurors to convict Bickle on 15 conspiracy, weapons and explosives charges, despite his service to the country.
“No one is above the law,” Smith said after detailing for more than an hour the evidence against the Navy petty officer. “To acquit him simply because he’s wearing a uniform would violate the principles he swore to uphold.”
The U.S. District Court jury was due to begin deliberations Thursday after more than two weeks of testimony from 24 prosecution and four defense witnesses.
Bickle didn’t testify. During closing arguments, defense lawyer James Pokorny focused on what he called “reasonable unanswered questions” that could leave jurors with reasonable doubt about Bickle’s guilt, he said.
The investigation was flawed, he said, and prosecutors relied on the word of former co-defendants who pleaded guilty and tailored their accounts of Bickle’s involvement in hopes that they’ll be spared prison time.
“Phone calls, emails, text messages and snitches,” Pokorny said. “No DNA. No fingerprints. No proof that 9mm Ruger and Glock handguns his client is accused of dealing were stolen at all.”
“We don’t have anything to hide,” Pokorny said.
Why, the defense lawyer asked, would a decorated and accomplished Navy SEAL who had a role in the 2011 movie “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and was “part of the same special forces that brought down Osama Bin Laden not so long ago” take a such a chance?
“You don’t want to make a mistake when you’re in the deliberation room,” he told the jury. “You don’t want to make a mistake when you have the fate of a Navy SEAL in your hands.”
Smith spoke to the jury from amid an arsenal of assault rifles and handguns propped on, against and in front of the prosecution table. In the center of the array was a rolling footlocker-sized case in which investigators found a hidden compartment.
Authorities said smuggling was possible because Navy SEALs aren’t fully searched when returning from deployments.
“The defendant is the ringleader of this conspiracy,” Smith said.
Bickle lived in San Diego, and some of the 72 weapons were found in a storage unit he leased in nearby El Cajon.
Smith cited phone calls, text messages, emails and bank records, and posted photos of C-4 explosives that federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents seized in raids last November at the Durango, Colo., home of Bickle’s former friend and co-defendant Richard Paul.
Paul pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy and explosives transport charges. He is due for sentencing Oct. 28.
Two other former Las Vegas co-defendants – Andrew Kaufman and Omar Aguirre – pleaded guilty last December for their role in the scheme. Kaufman is due for sentencing Oct. 28 on conspiracy and illegal transfer of a machine gun charges. He could face up to 15 years in prison.
Aguirre faces up to five years for conspiracy at sentencing Oct. 14.
Secret Witness turns 40 this year – and it’s helped solve many of Northern Nevada’s most violent crimes
Secret Witness tips have played a pivotal role in solving some of the most violent crimes the greater Northern Nevada region has seen. To date, Secret Witness has paid out more than $300,000 in rewards to anonymous tipsters. Rewards range from $50 (graffiti/tagging) to $1,500 (armed robbery) to $2,500 (murder).