Jury seated in Navy SEAL’s arms smuggling trial

A federal prosecutor told a jury Monday that Nicholas Bickle abused the power of the Navy SEAL uniform he wore to court on the first day of his arms smuggling trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Smith said the government “brick by brick” would “build a wall of evidence” against the San Diego-based SEAL accused of smuggling machine guns, other weapons and explosives into the country from the Middle East for his own profit.

But Bickle’s San Diego defense lawyer, James Pokorny, told the jury that the government’s chief witnesses, not Bickle, will emerge during the trial as the real bad guys in the arms smuggling scheme.

“This is a case about lies, drug use and hidden agendas,” Pokorny said. “The facts that you are going to hear in this case will cause you to be filled with doubt.”

All three of Bickle’s former co-defendants — Omar Aguirre, 35, and Andrew Kaufman, 36, both of Las Vegas, and Richard Paul, 35, of Colorado — pleaded guilty in the scheme and agreed to testify against Bickle.

Pokorny described the three men as either drug users or felons with plenty of incentive to cooperate with the government in the case.

Even Smith acknowledged the witnesses came with baggage. “The people he enlisted were by no means angels,” he said.

Bickle, 33, who holds the rank of petty officer, is facing a 15-count indictment charging him with smuggling the automatic weapons and explosives from Iraq, where he was last deployed as a Navy SEAL.

He is alleged to have brought the weapons and explosives to San Diego and then arranged to have them transported to Las Vegas and Colorado, where they were sold to people who planned to take the firearms to Mexico.

Bickle, who is free on bail, appeared in court wearing his medal-clad petty officer’s uniform, which bears the words “SEAL Team Five” on the shoulder. Navy SEALs are an elite special operations force that has been used heavily in military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year was carried out by Navy SEALs.

Pokorny filed court papers on the eve of the trial asking Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt to allow Bickle to wear the uniform. He argued that Navy regulations mandated it. And on Monday, despite initial concerns that the uniform might give Bickle an unfair character boost with the jurors, prosecutors did not object.

After the trial recessed for the day, Bickle changed into jeans and a white T-shirt before leaving the federal courthouse with his parents. He was carrying the uniform and later used it to shield his face from a news photographer.

In his opening statement, Smith said undercover federal agents were led to Bickle through a series of weapons transactions that began with Aguirre in Las Vegas in July 2010.

Agents documented thousands of dollars worth of transactions linked to Bickle during the summer and fall of 2010, Smith said.

At the time, the Navy SEAL was serving as a consultant during the filming of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Some of the weapons, the indictment alleged, were bought by the United States for Iraqi security forces.

Smith said Bickle had served as an “armorer” who maintained and safeguarded weapons after he was deployed in Iraq in 2008.

More than 70 firearms were smuggled and sold in the conspiracy, including machine guns, rifles, pistols and shotguns, prosecutors have said.

Bickle and the other defendants were charged as a result of a five-month undercover investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the Metropolitan Police Department.

Prosecutors plan to start calling witnesses today when the trial resumes. The case is expected to last two weeks.

Contact reporter Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.

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