Longform

LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY

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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.

Akers, now an official with the National Rifle Association--where, ironically, she labors to make it easier for people like Kapetanovic to buy guns--didn't return calls from New Times.

Aspey, perhaps reflecting his concerns about the viability of his case, offered all three men plea bargains in the spring of 1992. After spending nearly a year in jail awaiting trial, Belinic and Vusir, eager to return to their country and avoid the time and expense of a lengthy court appearance, accepted. They each pleaded guilty to one count of attempted illegal exportation. They did so, Belinic's attorney Marty Lieberman says, because "it was very apparent that they could go home right away if they pled."

Federal District Court Judge Roger Strand delivered his opinion on the quality of the evidence against Belinic and Vusir by departing from federal sentencing guidelines--sentencing them both to time served, and suspending their mandatory probation period, thus clearing the way for their immediate trip home.

But Kapetanovic refused to plead. "I am innocent man," he says. "Why should I admit to something I didn't do?"

Aspey's biggest problem was telling the jury that Kapetanovic hadn't actually smuggled anything. The government's case was based solely on his intent to do so. Called a "dry conspiracy," it is difficult to prove under any circumstances.

It was even more difficult in this case because the government could have waited to see if the conspiracy would moisten a little. Agents could have given Kapetanovic a chance to prove his real intent, by allowing him time to return to San Antonio to buy and export Beau Sutherland's weapons. But Goode claims the agents chose not to wait because they already knew what the outcome would be.

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Darrin Hostetler