Friend testifies in Navy SEAL’s gun-smuggling trial

Prosecutors set the stage for an awkward courtroom confrontation Wednesday in federal court when they called a Colorado resident as a witness against his longtime friend, a Navy SEAL accused of smuggling machine guns and explosives into the country from Iraq.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Smith asked Richard Paul how he felt about testifying against Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Bickle, and the witness replied, "A little nervous."

When the prosecutor asked why, Paul replied in a quivering voice: "We’ve been best friends for so long."

But Paul, a resident of Durango, Colo., signed a plea agreement in January that requires his cooperation in the Las Vegas case. He accepted the deal in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence.

Paul identified Bickle, 33, as the source of machine guns and pistols he sold from his home last year. Two other defendants have accepted plea bargains and offered their cooperation, but Paul’s longtime friendship with Bickle gives him added credibility.

Prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they did not intend to call co-defendant Omar Aguirre, who has a prior felony conviction, as a witness during Bickle’s trial.

Aguirre and another co-defendant, Andrew Kaufman, both of Las Vegas, accepted plea bargains in the arms smuggling case in December. Authorities said Aguirre was convicted in 1999 in New Mexico of possession with intent to distribute more than 100 pounds of marijuana.

Las Vegas police Detective Noe Larios testified that a confidential informant told authorities in June 2010 that Aguirre was involved in firearms trafficking.

In mid-August 2010, after the undercover detective had bought what he described as "AK-47-style machine guns" from Aguirre, 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 Kaufman’s residence to buy weapons for investigators. Larios later traveled with Aguirre to Paul’s residence in Colorado, where the detective bought machine guns and 9 mm pistols.

Jurors spent Tuesday, the first day of trial testimony, listening to recordings of firearms sales. They heard Aguirre, Kaufman and Paul on the recordings — but not Bickle, who is based in San Diego.

Paul testified that he met Bickle in 1993, and the two became close friends. He recalled Bickle saying he wanted to be a Navy SEAL when he grew up.

The witness said he was living in Colorado in 2004 when Bickle called to tell him he had joined the Navy. Later that year, Bickle attended his friend’s wedding and told him that he had achieved his dream of becoming a SEAL.

In September 2005, Paul learned that Bickle was being deployed overseas. Bickle returned the following year and showed Paul machine guns that he had brought back from Iraq, the witness said.

"He gave me one as a gift," Paul testified.

The witness said Bickle was deployed a second time in 2008 and returned the following year.

During the summer of last year, while Paul was working temporarily in Boulder City and living with Kaufman, Bickle asked whether he could store some items at Paul’s Colorado home. Paul said the two agreed to meet in Las Vegas and drive the items to Colorado.

During the trip, Paul testified, Bickle made a comment about the automatic weapons they were transporting.

The witness said he initially "wanted to be out of it," but by late August 2010, he had become "fully involved."

Paul said Aguirre, Kaufman’s friend, called him asking to buy machine guns and pistols, and Paul called Bickle to ask for permission.

Bickle gave his OK and set the price, the witness said. Paul said he later wire transferred money from the sale to Bickle.

Authorities arrested Paul on Nov. 3. After Paul’s arrest, authorities recorded a phone conversation between Paul and Bickle, and the recording was played for jurors Wednesday.

During the conversation, Paul tells Bickle, "Omar’s been bugging me for some more AKs." Bickle then asks, "How many more?"

As he ended his questioning of Paul, Smith asked the witness why he had decided to help authorities.

"Because it would give me a little bit less of a sentence if I cooperate," Paul replied.

The witness fought back tears as he told the jury that he and his wife have two sons, ages 6 and 8.

When the prosecutor asked why Paul was becoming emotional, he replied, "because I don’t know if I’m going to lose them."

On cross-examination, defense attorney James Pokorny suggested that Paul is facing a minimum prison term of 10 years. Paul said he understood he could reduce his sentence to 6½ years by cooperating.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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