The conduct of a Navy SEAL who led an arms trafficking conspiracy “eclipsed his military accomplishments,” a federal prosecutor argued Tuesday in Las Vegas.
While the government appreciates Nicholas Bickle’s service to his country, Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Smith Jr. said, “the fact remains that the defendant pretty much betrayed all that his military service represented.”
Smith made the statements while successfully persuading Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt to impose a prison sentence of nearly 18 years. Both the prosecutor and the judge objected to attempts by the defendant’s supporters to characterize him as a war hero.
Hunt said he thinks Bickle, 34, became a SEAL because “it provided him with some bravado.”
“I think he felt as a Navy SEAL he was above the law,” the judge later added.
Bickle, then a petty officer first class, was convicted in October of 13 of the 15 counts he faced in the case.
During the trial, prosecutors identified Bickle as the ringleader of a conspiracy to deal unlawfully in firearms. They accused him of bringing machine guns and other weapons into the country from Iraq for his own profit.
Hunt noted that Bickle wore his Navy uniform throughout the three-week trial. The judge offered his opinion that Bickle did so in an effort to impress and influence the jury.
“The jury was not impressed with that,” the judge remarked.
In marked contrast to his appearance during the trial, Bickle came to court Tuesday wearing bright yellow clothing labeled “detainee.” His wavy, once-trim hair had grown longer and was slicked back.
Bickle was given an “other than honorable” discharge from the Navy in December, when Hunt ordered him to surrender to the U.S. Marshals Service. The defendant, who previously lived in San Diego, has been held at a detention facility in Pahrump for nearly seven months.
“Bickle’s behavior was not reflective of the caliber of men within the Navy Special Warfare community,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by Lt. Ben Tisdale, spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Group One in Coronado, Calif. “On any given day, Navy SEALs are deployed throughout the world, serving with honor and integrity on and off the battlefield.”
Reno attorney John Arrascada, who began representing Bickle after the trial, said he plans to appeal the convictions and the sentence.
“We have respect for the judge’s decision but disagree with the duration of the sentence based on Mr. Bickle’s service to our country and his true character,” the lawyer said.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Arrascada argued for a five-year prison term. Reasons he gave for requesting the decreased penalty included:
■ Bickle had a reduced mental capacity at the time of the crimes because he suffered from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.
■ Bickle’s misconduct constituted “aberrant” behavior.
Arrascada said Bickle participated in more than 300 live combat missions.
“We’re talking about close, hand-to-hand combat,” the lawyer explained.
He argued that post-traumatic stress disorder can affect judgment and may help explain “why Mr. Bickle came back as a changed man.”
Hunt said he commends Bickle for his military service, but added, “I have never met anyone who was actually engaged in combat who wasn’t changed.”
“None of those changes justify committing crimes,” the judge said.
The investigation that led to criminal charges against Bickle began in June 2010 when an informant told authorities that Las Vegas resident Omar Aguirre, a felon, was involved in arms trafficking. About two months later, after an undercover detective had bought machine guns from Aguirre, investigators confronted the suspect and persuaded him to cooperate in the investigation.
Aguirre and two other men later accepted plea bargains and admitted selling weapons for Bickle, the only military member charged in the case.
Hunt sentenced Aguirre in October to five years in prison.
Colorado resident Richard Paul, Bickle’s longtime friend, pleaded guilty and testified against Bickle during the trial. Las Vegas resident Andrew Kaufman, the other defendant who pleaded guilty, cooperated with authorities but was not called to testify.
Hunt is scheduled to sentence both Paul and Kaufman today .
Among the government witnesses who testified during Bickle’s trial was filmmaker Peter Berg, who said Bickle gave him an AK-47 as a “trophy weapon” after the pair developed a friendship in Iraq, where Bickle worked as an ordnance representative.
Berg said he was embedded with SEAL Team Five for nearly a month in March 2009 while preparing to make his upcoming movie “Lone Survivor,” based on the book by Marcus Luttrell. Embedded journalists typically live with military units while covering armed conflicts.
The Los Angeles filmmaker credited Bickle with saving his life and the lives of others in Iraq.
Berg said Bickle gave him the AK-47 at a San Diego hotel in June 2009.
The witness said he took the weapon to his house and kept it in a safe in his garage until December 2009, when prop master Doug Fox destroyed it for him.
Bickle, who had a role in the 2011 movie “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” was arrested in November 2010 in San Diego. He did not testify during his trial.
The defendant spoke only briefly at his sentencing hearing, telling Hunt, “I just hope and pray that the court affords me the ability to start over.”
Prosecutors introduced 45 firearms into evidence during the trial. Hunt recalled on Tuesday that his courtroom “looked like a veritable armory.”
Bickle smuggled machine guns into the United States after his first deployment to Iraq in 2007 and again after his second deployment in 2009, prosecutors contend.
Smith argued that Bickle then “indiscriminately” sold them without concern for how they would be used.
“These weapons can be used to inflict mass casualties,” the prosecutor said.
The defendant was convicted of conspiracy, dealing in firearms without a license, four counts of unlawful possession and transfer of machine guns, five counts of unlawful possession and sale of stolen firearms, receiving and retaining property of the United States, and distributing explosives to a nonlicensee.
Several of Bickle’s relatives, including his parents, came to court Tuesday to show their support for him.
Bickle’s parents, Cliff and Barbara, declined to comment after the hearing. They live in Pennsylvania.
At the defendant’s request, Hunt recommended that Bickle be assigned to a prison in Pennsylvania.
Thomas Chittum III, resident agent in charge of the Las Vegas office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also attended the hearing.
“It seemed clear that the court carefully considered the seriousness of the offenses,” Chittum said.
He said the sentence Hunt imposed – 210 months – will serve as a deterrent to anyone who might consider committing similar crimes.
The judge found that Bickle had abused his position of trust, Chittum said, and now Bickle “has been held accountable for his crimes.”
“I’m glad it was us buying these guns and not the criminals they thought they were selling them to,” Chittum added.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.