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Askins invited Kapetanovic and friends to meet his weapons supplier, a man named Beau. "If your friends come," court transcripts quote Askins telling Kapetanovic, "they can put their hands on [the guns] and play with them if they want. They might even, if they are interested, shoot some of the stuff." Provided, of course, they brought their money.

It was a wonderful offer, Kapetanovic says. Belinic and Vusir would get to examine close-up some of the very state-of-the-art weapons the Serbs were using against their troops. They would be thrilled. And, of course, they could then politely decline to purchase weapons, offering whatever excuse seemed most appropriate.

Would they come to San Antonio, Askins asked? Yes, replied Kapetanovic. They would love to come.

@body:It was a dusty, 20-minute ride outside of San Antonio to the isolated "ranch" where Kapetanovic, Belinic and Vusir would meet Beau. It was a hot, windy day, and as Askins drove his crowded car up the long driveway, overgrown with thick grass, the men began to get nervous.

In a fax a few days earlier, Askins had written Kapetanovic that his "source," Beau Sutherland, was "uneducated and unsophisticated," but very knowledgeable about the kind of military equipment the Croatians might want. But court records show that on the way out to the ranch, Askins dropped a bombshell. Not only was the "source" crude and dimwitted, but also a "crazy man" when drunk, a "drug dealer" who can "get awful unpleasant."

Beau had "12 Mexican wives" in a nearby border town, Askins said, and was a wild character. It would be best to treat him gently and do what he wanted. And what he wanted, Askins reminded them, was cash. Today.

The scene at the ranch, actually a vacant home then being brokered by a real estate company owned by Askins' wife, heightened Kapetanovic's anxiety. A shotgun-toting guard met the car at the property gates, grimly waving it forward. They found Sutherland near a pickup truck loaded with weapons.

A hulking, potbellied man, Sutherland was actually Askins' Customs agent supervisor. But today he was acting as a gunrunner, and he played the role with a dark gusto. He greeted his visitors, introducing a group of men around him (also Customs agents) as former Green Berets and Navy SEALs who "take care of problems for me." He projected a menacing presence.

Sutherland allowed Belinic and Vusir to examine some rifles and a few other weapons, and then got down to business. What guns did they want, and where was their money?

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."

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Darrin Hostetler