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'Rambo' Has PTSD: The Strange Case of an International DEA Murder-For-Hire Drug Sting

A former Army sniper suspected of leading an elite group of ex-military killers-for-hire wants out of jail to treat his PTSD. Prosecutors say if released, he'll flee the country.

by Keegan Hamilton
Dec 11 2014, 7:30pm

Photo by Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

In many ways, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) is an unlikely place for some of the world's most fearsome criminals to be imprisoned. Located in lower Manhattan just steps away from City Hall and the bustle of Chinatown, the angular, beige tower is easy to overlook. But the facility has been called "Little Gitmo" for a reason, with some inmates held in extreme solitary confinement amid extraordinarily tight security.

So when Joseph "Rambo" Hunter allegedly removed his own handcuffs while he was going through the MCC intake process last year, it was no small feat. Then again, maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise that a standard pair of handcuffs failed to subdue a former Army sniper instructor who was at the MCC for allegedly leading an elite gang of ex-military drug cartel assassins.

Hunter didn't escape — he is still incarcerated at the facility pending trial on charges that he conspired to kill a DEA agent — but prosecutors recently reminded the judge in Hunter's case about the September 2013 incident when the accused hit man asked to be released on bail.

'I'm PTSD — Paid Till Suicide or Death.' Read more here.

Hunter, a decorated veteran who served 21 years in the military, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and claims federal prison facilities lack adequate programs to treat his condition. According to court documents obtained by VICE News, Hunter's attorney, Marlon Kirton, recently resubmitted a request to have the alleged hit man freed so that he can see PTSD specialists at a Veterans Affairs hospital near his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky.

Kirton's initial bail request last year was denied, but on October 10 he sent a letter asking federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain to reconsider the decision. Three days later, Kirton filed the transcript of an earlier court hearing in which he explained to the judge — and to skeptical federal prosecutors — why Hunter ought to be released. The document reveals previously unreported details about the case against Hunter, his background, and the toll his lengthy military career might have had on his mental health.

* * *

The case against Hunter — a.k.a. Rambo, according to the federal indictment against him — was bizarre even before the PTSD twist. When the charges were first revealed last September, federal prosecutor Preet Bharara said the case felt like it was "ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel," and called it "a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends."

According to court documents, DEA informants posed as Colombian cartel members, then approached Hunter for help killing a DEA agent and an informant. The hit was supposed to happen in Liberia, with Hunter's men wearing Mission: Impossible-style latex masks to conceal their identities.

Hunter is also believed to be connected to another pending federal drug case in New York that involves a massive stockpile of North Korean methamphetamine. As VICE News reported in March, the timeline and other aspects of Hunter's case align with a separate DEA sting operation of alleged Triad gang members and smugglers in Thailand who were lured by the feds into a plot to ship the "ultra-pure" meth to the US.

The 48-year-old Hunter faces life in prison if he is convicted of all the conspiracy charges against him. He was arrested September 25 of last year in Phuket, Thailand, and transferred shortly thereafter to the MCC, a federal facility operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Hunter's attorney claimed that the handcuff incident — mentioned on two separate occasions by prosecutors in court records — did occur, "but it was one of the co-defendants, not Mr. Hunter."

Kirton declined to make Hunter available for an interview with VICE News.

The attorney said Hunter underwent a mental health evaluation by a defense expert following his arrest and was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. It's impossible to say whether Hunter's PTSD is severe enough to warrant release and a special treatment regimen, or if he's using the condition as way to finagle a brief stretch of relative freedom. Either way, the situation touches on serious issues facing the Department of Justice, the VA, and the Bureau of Prisons regarding the prevalence of PTSD among incarcerated veterans and the mental health treatment options that are available to them.

'Post Traumatic Streets Disorder.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

A BOP spokesman declined to comment on the PTSD treatment options available to federal prisoners. A DEA spokesman also declined to comment, citing the fact that Hunter's case is still being adjudicated.

According to court documents, Hunter served in the Army from 1983 to 2004, and was deployed to Puerto Rico, Panama, and Germany. He was awarded a slew of medals and recognized after his discharge in 2004 as a "Kentucky Colonel" by his home state, a title bestowed for "outstanding service to a community, state, or the nation." Kirton told the judge that Hunter also worked for a private military contractor in Iraq for 18 months "securing important military personnel and the citizens of Iraq," and that he was "involved in biometric scans, making sure that terrorists could not get into the Green Zone" in Baghdad.

VICE News could not independently verify the details of Hunter's biography, but a statement issued by federal prosecutors after his arrest said he was a "sniper instructor and a senior drill sergeant, training other soldiers in marksmanship and tactics." Prosecutors have also described Hunter as "the leader of an air assault squad."

Kirton told VICE News that Hunter had other deployments beyond those mentioned in court, but would not elaborate. He also declined to name the military contractor that employed Hunter.

* * *

If the DEA's accusations against Hunter are true, he was a violent man who existed in a violent international underworld.

"The targets of this investigation were hardened global criminals involved in everything from drug and arms trafficking to contract assassinations," DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement about Hunter's case. "Besides being international cocaine traffickers, members of this criminal organization conspired in an elaborate scheme to murder a DEA Special Agent and an informant for a six figure payday."

The DEA's investigation of Hunter began in January 2013 and involved meetings in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean over a span of nine months. Two DEA informants posing as Colombian narcos arranged for Hunter to serve as their organization's head of security and recruit former soldiers from the US, Poland, and Germany to serve as his security team.

Hunter allegedly told the DEA informants that his men were also available for contract killings, referred to in court documents as "bonus work." He said his guys wanted to do as many "bonus jobs" as possible. Prosecutors say that these statements and others by Hunter and his men were "surreptitiously audio-recorded and videotaped," and sometimes sent via email.

In early April of 2013, Hunter met the informants in Liberia to discuss providing security for drugs and weapons deals. Also present at the meeting, according to the feds, were "representatives of a bona fide Eastern European drug-trafficking organization, which had shipped over 200 kilograms of cocaine during 2012."

By May, the DEA was beginning to lure Hunter into the phony plot to murder one of their agents. The informants told Hunter during a meeting in Thailand that they would soon be moving a "big load" through the Caribbean. They offered "bonus work" to eliminate a "leak" within their organization — a boat captain who was tipping off a DEA agent about their shipments. The indictment says that Hunter agreed to have his men kill the agent and captain for $800,000.

"They will handle both jobs," Hunter allegedly said in a May 30 email. "They just need good tools."

Hunter and two of his men allegedly discussed a variety of ways to the dispatch their targets, "including using machine guns, cyanide, or a grenade." They ultimately requested .22 caliber pistols with silencers — "these are a must" — and silenced MP7 submachine guns.

The indictment quotes Timothy Vamvakias, one of Hunter's men who served in the US Army until 2004, describing the plan. "We gotta do this, hit it hard, hit it fast, make sure it's done and get the fuck out of there," Vamvakias allegedly said. "That's all that's to it. If we got the right equipment, we're good to go.… If we can get the MP7s that would be awesome. That will guarantee that whatever gets in that kill zone is going down."

The final details were allegedly arranged at a meeting in Thailand in August 2013 between the DEA informants, Vamvakias, and another hit man. They would make the murder look "like a bad robbery." The indictment says they planned to use "two highly sophisticated latex facemasks" that "can make the wearer appear to be of another race."

Hunter returned to Thailand from a trip to the Philippines on September 6, timing that coincides with the culmination of the other DEA investigation into the "ultra-pure" North Korean meth shipment. Hunter's exact role in that conspiracy remains a mystery; he has not been charged in connection with the investigation, and his indictment makes no mention of the meth or the defendants in that case. Federal prosecutors handling Hunter's case in New York declined to comment.

However, a DEA source confirmed to VICE News earlier this year that the cases are linked.

The Washington Post has also reported the connection between the two cases, citing an anonymous "senior federal law enforcement official" as saying Hunter led a "transnational criminal organization that involved drugs, weapons, chemicals, murder and a close involvement with rogue nations."

Hunter has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and Kirton again maintained his client's innocence during his interview with VICE News, suggesting Hunter may have been a victim of DEA entrapment. He said that after Hunter returned from his contractor work in Iraq, he "started working for a wealthy South African businessman in Asia."

"Shortly thereafter, that's when all this crazy stuff had happened," Kirton said. "Some really crazy things which ultimately led to this case." Kirton wouldn't elaborate on what exactly those "crazy things" were.

Making his bail request to the judge, Kirton said "there's no evidence whatsoever that my client, Mr. Hunter, asked to do what's called 'bonus work,' which is murder for hire. He never initiated such conversations. He never asked for such work." Kirton said Hunter "loves his family and loves this country," and he is not "a person who receives money to kill people."

Kirton asked for Hunter to be released on a $500,000 bond, secured by $100,000 worth of real estate put up by his family in Kentucky. In Kirton's proposal, Hunter would be subject to electronic monitoring, have his passport revoked, and be able to leave his house only for specific tasks, including court dates and counseling at the VA hospital in Owensboro.

* * *

Kirton shared a letter with VICE News sent by Hunter's sister Karen Sue Hunter Adams to the judge. She said she and their family "are not rich people," but they are willing to put up everything they own for his bail, including their mother's home and two rental properties.

"Joseph is not a flight risk," the sister wrote in her letter. "His picture and name has been plastered so much across the news and internet, I seriously doubt there's a place he'd be allowed in, even if he could pass a security check."

Kirton noted that Hunter is banned from traveling to Thailand and the Philippines, and said everyone involved in the conspiracy case is "either arrested or cooperating." Hunter's sister also made a personal plea to the judge on her brother's behalf.

"He will not jeopardize myself or my mother's assets," Hunter's sister wrote, capitalizing words for emphasis. "I KNOW him. I'm sure that's what all families say, but in this case I KNOW it to be true, and I pretty much raised him while growing up. He would not do that to me."

The letter offers the first glimpse at details of Hunter's upbringing and personal life.

Hunter's sister said in the letter that their mother worked for 34 years as a "housekeeper" at a local hospital, and that she was taking care of Hunter's kids in addition to her own children and foster kids. She said Hunter and his wife "never displayed any signs of having more than an average retired military family."

Prosecutors paint a vastly different picture, describing Hunter as a cold-blooded killer who had access to piles of cash and traveled the world with multiple identities. Urging the judge to deny Hunter's bail request, assistant federal prosecutor Aimee Hector presented fake passports seized during the course of the investigation. One was from Zimbabwe and used the name Frank Robinson. Another identity document said he was a South African named Andrew Hunter.

In addition, Hunter allegedly asked the DEA informant for a fake French passport during the investigation. When the informant offered a Venezuelan passport instead, Hunter said he spoke Spanish and could pull it off, asking to use the name Fernando Joseph Santana. Hector also noted that Hunter told informants during the investigation that he had a fake German passport, which the prosecutor said "the government has not yet found or seized."

Though Hunter owns homes in Connecticut and Owensboro, Hector claimed that "he has not spent much time in the United States over the past several years." They say he visited the US only once a year for the past three years, most recently in March 2013 when he flew into the country from Seoul, South Korea. Hunter's attorney told the judge his client had traveled — using his own US passport — to Mali, Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Hunter is married to an American, but he was allegedly living in a house in Thailand with another woman described in court documents as his fiancee. Intriguingly, Hunter's attorney told the judge in Hunter's defense that the residence in Thailand "was purchased by agents, or it was paid for by the confidential informant in this case.… It was a house bought and paid for, either by them or by the confidential informant, not by Mr. Hunter."

Pressed for more details about the house — and how or why the DEA might have purchased it — Hunter's attorney was cagey. "It's really a very complicated question," Kirton said. "I don't want to say anything about that right now."

Hector told the judge that Hunter has "access to cash," making him a flight risk. She said the DEA paid Hunter $480,000 during the investigation — presumably money used to make their Colombian narco ruse seem convincing — and seized $100,000 from the house in Thailand. It's unclear whether the DEA's $480,000 was ever recovered.

Hector said Hunter boasted of previously smuggling $150,000 into the US and paying his American mortgage in cash. The feds seized eight firearms — which Kirton said were purchased legally — at Hunter's house in Connecticut, plus six bulletproof vests and "large amounts of ammunition" from the home in Kentucky.

Hector also emphasized Hunter's leadership role in the conspiracy, saying he was responsible for "gathering resumes, securing payment, and coordinating logistics," as the hit squad targeted the DEA agent. She said it wasn't Hunter's first experience with murder for hire.

"He spoke about the murders of two women in the Philippines," the prosecutor said. "He also advised members of his team about the use of [a] torture technique to extract information from potential people that might be kidnapped in connection with the operation."

* * *

Despite his client's alleged crimes, Kirton argued that his client deserves at least temporary freedom so that he can undergo PTSD treatment at the VA.

"He's a military veteran who served his country," Kirton told VICE News. "A lot of things in the indictment are sort of misleading. I think we have a pretty strong defense. We don't believe he's a danger."

He told the judge that the Bureau of Prisons PTSD treatment program is subpar compared to what the VA has to offer.

"The BOP has no persons dedicated or trained in treating veterans suffering from PTSD," Kirton wrote. "They offer no counseling for family members or group therapy with other PTSD afflicted persons. They offer no therapy that is able to distinguish among different combat situations. These are all things offered by the VA."

A VA spokeswoman told VICE News that veterans are ineligible for VA healthcare while incarcerated, but the agency's Health Care for Re-entry Veterans program "conducts outreach to veterans as they prepare to exit federal and state prisons."

The prosecutor in Hunter's case told the judge that the "assertion that he cannot receive proper care at the MCC is simply unfounded and based entirely upon unreliable information." A letter prosecutors sent to the judge cited the facility's legal counsel as saying that inmates with PTSD "would be seen by a staff psychologist and referred to a psychiatrist if medication was deemed necessary." PTSD reportedly falls under the purview of the MCC's crisis management program, where patients "receive mental health treatment on an as-needed basis and the frequency of such treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis."

While Hunter's sister pleaded for her brother to be allowed to come home and "get his affairs in order and ready himself for the ordeal ahead," the prosecutor was emphatic about the risk involved. Referencing the alleged handcuff incident, Hector said that, if released, Hunter would "have the ability to potentially evade whatever kind of electronic monitoring this Court may impose, and escape from this country."

"The reality is if he were convicted of these offenses, he would likely serve the rest of his life in prison," Hector told the judge, "giving him all the incentive in the world to flee."

Kirton maintains that the BOP has "no dedicated protocols to manage someone with PTSD," specifically citing a lack of family and group therapy as reasons why Hunter should be allowed to return to Kentucky to seek treatment. He cited a precedent for this — a case in 2011 in which an Iraq war veteran attempted to have a witness in a case against him killed. In that instance, the defendant had already pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation rather than prison so that he could receive PTSD treatment.

North Korean meth, motorcycle gangs, Army snipers, and a guy named Rambo. Read more here.

A 2011 article in PTSD Research Quarterly by the two top officials at the VA's veterans justice outreach program noted that PTSD is increasingly being used as the basis of an insanity defense in court, and that "recent cases have seen the stress associated with combat exposure considered as a mitigating factor at sentencing."

The fact that courts are offering a degree of leniency to veterans may bode well for Hunter in the long term, but for now Judge Laura Taylor Swain is more concerned about the risk of releasing an alleged assassin with expertise traveling the world incognito — Swain rejected the bail request on November 24.

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton