A federal judge in Manhattan closed another chapter in the stranger-than-fiction case of the real-life "Rambo" on Tuesday, sentencing 51-year-old former US Army sniper instructor Joseph Manuel Hunter to 20 years in prison on drug, weapons, and murder-for-hire charges.
But the sensational tale is far from over: The fate of Hunter's former boss — a notorious international drug and arms dealer named Paul Le Roux — remains something of a mystery, and Le Roux's role in helping the DEA orchestrate the elaborate sting operation that led to Hunter's conviction has raised questions about the deals US authorities are willing to broker in order to pursue high-profile investigations.
Hunter, who prosecutors say went by the nickname Rambo, pleaded guilty last year to an array of conspiracy charges, including coordinating a plot to murder a DEA agent and one of the agency's informants. With the encouragement of undercover DEA operatives who posed as members of a Colombian drug cartel, Hunter recruited an elite team of ex-military special forces members to carry out the hits and provide security for what they believed were multi-kilo cocaine shipments. Hunter and his men expected to receive $800,000 for the job, and they planned to use "highly sophisticated latex face masks" to disguise themselves during the killings.
When the charges were first revealed on September 27, 2013, shortly after Hunter was arrested in Thailand, federal prosecutor Preet Bharara said the case felt like it was "ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel." He echoed that language after the sentence was handed down on Tuesday.
"The sentencing of Joseph Hunter, an admitted contract killer, convicted drug trafficker, and ringleader of trained assassins, ends another chapter in a chilling criminal case that spanned the globe," Bharara said. "Hunter and his cohorts turned from serving their countries as soldiers to becoming mercenaries for hire, plotting to kill a DEA agent and informant, and trafficking in massive quantities of cocaine."
What Bharara didn't mention is that the murder and drug plots were concocted almost entirely by the DEA — with significant help from Le Roux, a 43-year-old native of Zimbabwe who was last known to reside in the Philippines. He was secretly taken into US custody in Liberia in 2012 and now faces an array of drug charges, but his current whereabouts are unknown.
During the hearing on Tuesday, Hunter appeared before US District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain wearing a drab navy blue prison jumpsuit and sporting a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard. He retained the bulky build seen in photos that circulated shortly after his arrest in Thailand, but his shaved head had grown out to reveal graying hair and a bald spot. He also had what looked to be an inch-long cut or scratch on his forehead.
Prior to the sentence being handed down, Hunter stood and offered a tearful apology for his actions, choking up as he mentioned the support he had received from his family members, including his sister, Karen Sue Hunter Adams, who traveled from their native Kentucky for the hearing. Hunter told the judge he would still be with his family "if I only asked myself what God would have wanted me to do."
On Friday, Hunter sent a handwritten letter to the court that similarly apologized to the judge and "the citizens of the United States for my actions and involvement in any crimes." He said he was "deeply ashamed" and accepted "full responsibility" for his actions, but a few paragraphs later he blamed his ex-boss Le Roux for setting him up.
"I was unwittingly drawn into a criminal organization with a guise of legal employment which led me to be threatened, manipulated, and set-up for crimes I did not commit in order to place me in a position of duress by the ruthless criminal Paul Leroux," he wrote, using an alternate spelling for Le Roux's name. "Leroux used people to do his biding [sic] for his criminal activities by any means necessary to include murders, kidnapping, imprisonment, and threats of death."
Hunter noted that others have made similar allegations, and he linked Le Roux's criminal network to "heads of state, law enforcement agents, and terrorist organizations," as well as "governments that have been labeled rogue nations and evil empires by the US government." He also claimed that Le Roux and the US government helped to orchestrate coups that removed "war criminals and others" from power.
Le Roux's alleged exploits seemingly defy belief, but several reports, including one published by VICE News in April, have detailed his apparent role as the head of a sprawling international criminal network that was involved in drug smuggling, arms shipments, illicit gold mining, several murders, and a lucrative online pharmacy scheme that federal prosecutors say facilitated illegal sales of prescription pills in the US.
Many documents in Hunter's case and others linked to Le Roux have been filed under seal, leaving questions about the full extent of Le Roux's role in the investigations unanswered. The New York Times has sued to have some of the documents unsealed, but so far only a handful of indictments have been made public.
Le Roux's name, however, was mentioned several times during the hearing on Monday, and Hunter's lead attorney, Marlon Kirton, reiterated a previous claim that his client only worked for the drug lord because he and his family members had been threatened with death.
"I was faced with a decision to protect my family or face the reality that Paul Leroux would kill us all," Hunter wrote in his letter to the judge. "I did everything I could to protect my family and keep terror from them."
Federal prosecutor Emil Bove pointed out that Hunter had left Le Roux's employ twice before and returned to the fold each time in exchange for more money. He noted that Hunter had been caught on wiretaps boasting of committing "actual murders" for Le Roux — as opposed to the hired killings laid out in the DEA sting operation, which were never carried out — and said that "greed," rather than fear, was Hunter's primary motivation.
"Mr. Le Roux ran a dangerous organization," Bove said. "But it was dangerous in large part because he had men like Mr. Hunter working for him."
Hunter's attorney also tried to argue that his client's PTSD diagnosis contributed to his fear of leaving Le Roux's organization. Hunter served in the US Army from 1983 to 2004, beginning his career in the elite Army Rangers unit. A statement issued by federal prosecutors after Hunter's arrest said he was a "sniper instructor and a senior drill sergeant, training other soldiers in marksmanship and tactics." He was highly decorated and received an honorable discharge.
After his military career ended, Hunter applied to become a New York City police officer. His attorney said he passed the entrance exam, but declined the job because he feared he wouldn't be able to support his family on a rookie cop's salary. He ended up taking a job as a prison guard near his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, before leaving in 2006 to work as a private security contractor in Iraq. He was a security supervisor at the US embassy in Baghdad, and his attorney said he investigated suicide bombings and was "subjected to regular mortar fire, sniper fire, and suicide bombings."
While Swain described Hunter as "a troubled man who needs help coping with incidents of violence in his past," the judge rejected the assertion that his PTSD was a factor in his decision to continue working with Le Roux. "This court frankly does not find that claim to be credible," Swain said.
"He had in the past found he was able to separate from Le Roux without consequences," she said. "He worked for a dangerous individual, but he chose to do so for money knowing he would do terrible things."
Swain ordered Hunter to undergo "a prompt and thorough mental health assessment," and said she would instruct the Bureau of Prisons to ensure he receives "appropriate care." She recommended he be placed in a "suitable facility at or in the vicinity of Lexington, Kentucky," so that he could be near his family.
Bove also spoke forcefully about Hunter's PTSD claims, noting the timing of the hearing after Memorial Day and saying it was "outrageous" that Hunter "used the training he received from the US military to commit incredibly serious crimes."
While the judge appeared sympathetic to Hunter on several occasions — she asked a court clerk to hand him a glass of water after his tearful speech — the prosecutor's argument seemed to hold sway with Swain.
"He approached this murder plot as meticulously and tirelessly as he did his work during his military career," the judge said, announcing the 20-year sentence. Hunter will be subject to 10 years of government supervision after his release, and will be barred from working or traveling abroad.
Hunter's sentence was below the range suggested by federal guidelines — he could have received anywhere from 24 to 30 years — but in line with what Swain gave his co-defendants. US Army Sergeant Timothy Vamvakias and former German soldier Dennis Gogel both pleaded guilty to drug and murder-for-hire charges and are currently serving 20-year sentences, while Michael Filter, another ex-soldier who pleaded guilty to only a single drug conspiracy charge, was sentenced to 8 years. A fifth defendant, Polish national Slawomir Soborski, is scheduled to be sentenced on June 10.
Carl David Stillwell and Adam Samia — two other hitmen linked to Hunter and Le Roux — have pleaded not guilty to charges that involve two murders-for-hire in the Philippines. Hunter was caught on a wiretap discussing the killings, but he has not been charged in connection with that case.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton