LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY

THE FEDS DESPERATELY WANTED THE CROATION IMMIRANT TO BE AN ILLEGAL GUNRUNNER. WHEN HE REFUSED, THEY BUSTED HIM ANYWAY.

Kapetanovic, who had expected to be taken to a San Antonio gun shop or sporting-goods store, was alarmed. This was more than he had bargained for. Here they were, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by "bad characters." To make matters worse, one of his daughters, Rosita, had come along for the ride. What would happen to all of them if Beau wasn't given the answer he wanted?

"You can never be sure," Kapetanovic remembers, "if they want your money or your life." Uncertain what to say to Sutherland, he turned and stared at Belinic, who was carrying the checkbook for the account that held the $500,000 he had brought from Croatia.

Belinic was quiet for a moment, and then told Sutherland that they had forgotten their checkbook at the hotel back in town. Could they pay him later, perhaps on a return trip in a few days?

The ruse worked. Sutherland was displeased, but grunted that it would be all right if they agreed to come back in four days and pick up weapons. They could pay then, cash on delivery.

The would-be arms buyers then fled the ranch, intending, Kapetanovic says, never to return.

But they hadn't quite escaped. The next morning, Askins appeared at their San Antonio hotel, looking worried. He told Kapetanovic, Belinic and Vusir that their unwillingness to pay Sutherland the day before had brought them to the brink of disaster.

"Boy, I thought we had a real problem out there," Askins said. Sutherland was prone to "violent rages" and they should "never underestimate" him.

The only thing they could do now, Askins said, was to sign a purchase order confirming the items they wanted to buy. Sutherland, Askins told the men, demanded "to see this in writing." Askins pushed a piece of paper across the table that listed many of the weapons Kapetanovic had inquired about over the previous five months.

The Croats and Kapetanovic exchanged glances, while Askins fixed them with a steely glare.

The implication, Goode charges, was clear. "Sign it, or face the wrath of Beau," he says. "After what they had seen the day before, with the men with guns and all that, it was clearly intimidation."

Belinic and Vusir, the latter of whom doesn't speak or even read English, quickly scrawled their signatures in the margin at the bottom of the page. Kapetanovic refused to sign.

"I didn't want to get involved in that," he says. "I think, two [signatures] is enough to hold them off for now."
Askins left with the paper, and the shaken group quickly boarded a flight back to Phoenix, heading for its meeting with Mandall and the bullet-machine broker.

On the way, the men stopped off at Los Arcos Mall to buy wristwatches--the nice kind you can't get in Croatia," Kapetanovic says--for Belinic and Vusir.

@rule:
@body:Kapetanovic's other daughter, Iva, was home the night of May 31, helping her mother prepare for the dinner guests. They hadn't been told of the arrests. Suddenly, she noticed the silhouette of a man holding a revolver outside a window by the front door.

"I thought they were coming to kill me no matter what," she says. "So I figured I might as well let them in." She gingerly opened the door, and was met by the barrel of a gun.

Customs agents stormed into the house--and one owned by Kapetanovic next door, for which they had no search warrant--probing every nook and cranny. They said they expected to find a stockpile of weapons already purchased by Kapetanovic, along with detailed, secret exportation plans, a list of Croatian contacts and money men, and other evidence of international subterfuge.

Instead, they found one frightened wife, two equally frightened daughters, two cats, a stack of old gun magazines and two Italian, World War II-era hunting rifles.

For federal prosecutors charged with building a case against Ivan Kapetanovic, it was a bad omen.

@rule:
@body:Mark Aspey won't say much about his fight to convict Kapetanovic, claiming that he doesn't want "to get into a pissing contest" with Goode over the trial's outcome. But he does admit, quietly and with a slight grin, that he was "unexcited" about the case.

A veteran prosecutor with a reputation as a hard-nosed, unforgiving litigator who had never before lost a courtroom fight, Aspey is to be forgiven for his misgivings. According to a source close to the investigation who asked to remain anonymous, the case was forced on Aspey by then-U.S. attorney Linda Akers, who was hungry for the publicity surrounding a high-visibility bust.

"Anyone could see that this case wasn't going anywhere," the source says. "Customs simply didn't have enough to make it stick. But Linda wanted to say she had convicted some gunrunners."
Akers--whose legacy at the U.S. Attorney's Office is a reputation for grandstanding on high-profile cases, such as her ill-fated decision to shut down casinos on Indian reservations--got her PR fix. The Phoenix Gazette, among other Valley newspapers, ran big-type headlines proclaiming, "$500,000 Seized in Arms Plot, Funds Were to Buy Weapons." But the U.S. attorney was soon to discover that getting a little ink and obtaining a conviction were two very different things.

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