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In addition, the minister asked, would Kapetanovic look into the cost of bullet-making machines? The machines were legal to export, and could possibly be obtained quickly.

Believing that most of the Serbian army was made up of ex-communists bent on conquering Croatia, Kapetanovic eagerly agreed.

"They asked me to gather prices and things," he recalls. "But they never gave me money or authority to buy anything. They just thought, as a free man living in a free country, I would be able to do the job easy.

"I thought so, too."
Upon his return to Fountain Hills, he began teaching himself about weaponry. "I hunted a bit as a child, but I knew nothing about where to find information on the big weapons Croatia might need," Kapetanovic says. "So I went looking for people who would know."

He found them in the pages of a magazine.
While browsing through a copy of the November 1990 Soldier of Fortune--the magazine for mercenaries real and imagined--in a Fountain Hills convenience mart, Kapetanovic ran across a "bulletin," announcing the availability of a cache of weapons in Nicaragua.

Kapetanovic called Soldier of Fortune and was given the name of a man said to have access to the Nicaraguan arsenal--a mysterious figure named Bill Askins.

Another ad, placed by a man named Allen Lever, offered weapons for sale out of Vancouver, British Columbia, via Southeast Asia.

Kapetanovic thought he had struck gold.
"Perhaps, I thought, this would be a way of getting the information I needed," Kapetanovic says. "I see ads for weapons out of Nicaragua, Singapore, Hong Kong--where U.S. export ban does not apply. There would be nothing illegal about it. It's completely aboveboard.

"I think, maybe even I could put Askins and Lever together with Croatia, and they could do business."
But Askins and Lever had a different kind of business in mind.

@body:In the months after Kapetanovic's May 1991 arrest, his attorney, Mike Goode, spent weeks trying to put together a dossier on Bill Askins. He knew that Askins had played a critical role in gathering evidence against his client, but it was difficult finding out anything further about him.

Mark Aspey, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the triumvirate of accused smugglers, didn't want to reveal Askins' background. He said that doing so would jeopardize "national security."

What did that mean?
An abrasive, fast talker with a reputation as one of the leading pit bulls of the Chicago legal community, Goode wasn't about to guess. Goode--recruited by Kapetanovic after his dazzling defense of a Croatian diplomat in Washington, D.C.--launched an intensive investigation of Askins, and what he says he found could have been torn from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel.

Askins had been a pilot and intelligence officer in Vietnam, where Goode says he was also rumored to have been part of an elite, four-man sniper squad that carried out assassinations of North Vietnamese officers. After the war, he became an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, where he remained for a decade.

Goode says it was through his CIA involvement that Askins became interested in the lore surrounding the Iran-contra affair. It is part of Central American mythos that one of Oliver North's shipments of U.S. arms, destined for the Middle East, was somehow lost in transit. Goode says Askins had reason to believe that the shipment wasn't just a legend, and spent five months in the jungles of Nicaragua looking for it--hoping to sell what he recovered through the Soldier of Fortune "bulletin."

The weapons, however, never turned up. "When that deal went down the tubes," Goode theorizes, "Askins was looking for a way to recoup the money he spent on the wild-goose chase. Just in time, along comes Ivan."

Repeated efforts to contact Askins at his last known phone number in San Antonio, Texas, failed. Aspey declined to comment on his whereabouts.

Kapetanovic had no inkling of Askins' background, but he sensed that the gun dealer was a "big-time player." So he decided to apply a distinctly American lesson, learned the hard way by an immigrant trying to make it in this image-conscious land: If you act like a high roller, you get treated like one.

Kapetanovic figured, not unreasonably, that if he told this tough-talking arms dealer the whole truth--that he was just a Fountain Hills bookseller looking for prices on guns, and had no authority to make an immediate purchase--Askins wouldn't give him the time of day.

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Darrin Hostetler