A federal jury spent Tuesday listening to secretly recorded firearms sales, but one voice was noticeably absent from the recordings: that of the defendant, Navy SEAL Nicholas Bickle.
Prosecutors allege Bickle, a San Diego-based SEAL, smuggled machine guns, other weapons and explosives into the country from the Middle East for his own profit. Three other defendants in the case, including two Las Vegas men, accepted plea bargains months ago.
A Las Vegas police detective, the first trial witness, took the stand Tuesday morning and presented audio and video recordings of firearms sales in the case. Although participants in the sales mentioned "Nick" and a "Navy SEAL," Bickle was not recorded during the deals. Bickle's three co-defendants have admitted working as middlemen in a conspiracy with him and are expected to testify during the two-week trial.
Detective Noe Larios, who had been deputized as a federal agent before joining the investigation, said a confidential informant told authorities in June 2010 that Las Vegas resident Omar Aguirre was involved in firearms trafficking.
During cross-examination late Tuesday, San Diego defense attorney James Pokorny asked Larios to identify the informant. The question drew an objection from Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Vasquez and a sidebar conference with Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt, who sustained the objection.
Larios said the informant was working for "monetary gain," but Vasquez again objected when Pokorny asked how much the informant had been paid. Hunt again sustained the objection.
The detective said he was working in an undercover capacity on June 22, 2010, when he went with the informant to Aguirre's residence to buy weapons.
In mid-August 2010, after Larios had bought more weapons from Aguirre, including "AK-47-style machine guns," investigators confronted the suspect and persuaded him to cooperate with the investigation.
Aguirre wore a concealed recording device on Aug. 18, 2010, when he went to the Las Vegas residence of Andrew Kaufman to buy weapons for investigators.
"He ended up spending $4,800 on machine guns," Larios testified.
While listening to a recording of the transaction, jurors heard Kaufman mention a Navy SEAL who was shooting a movie. At the time, Bickle was working as a consultant on the set of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
Jurors also heard a recording of a phone call between Aguirre and Colorado resident Richard Paul in which the pair discussed "Nick." Larios said he determined through the investigation that Nick was Bickle.
The detective later traveled with Aguirre to Paul's residence in Colorado. Larios said he paid $8,700 for six "AK-47-style machine guns" and three 9 mm pistols on Sept. 8, 2010.
Larios testified that he returned to Colorado on Oct. 7, 2010, and paid $8,000 for six more machine guns and two more 9 mm pistols. On the recording of the deal, Paul mentions his "brother" and refers to him as a Navy SEAL.
"He's not referring to his actual blood brother but to someone he considers a brother," Larios explained to the jury.
Last year, a defense attorney described Paul and Bickle as "boyhood chums" and said they have known each other since they attended high school in Norway, Mich.
Bickle, 33, has been charged in a 15-count indictment with conspiracy to deal unlawfully in firearms, dealing in firearms without a license and other charges. Prosecutors have described him as the conspiracy's leader.
Aguirre, Kaufman and Paul have accepted plea bargains in the case. According to their plea agreements, more than 70 firearms, including 30 machine guns, were smuggled and sold in the conspiracy.
Bickle, a petty officer first class, returned from a deployment to Iraq in March 2009. He has appeared in court in uniform since the trial began Monday. Larios is expected to resume his testimony this morning.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.