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Prosecutors fight Navy SEAL’s release

Federal prosecutors in Las Vegas are challenging a San Diego judge’s decision to release on bail a Navy SEAL accused of smuggling machine guns and other weapons from the Middle East.

In a 103-page emergency appeal, prosecutors argue that U.S. Magistrate Judge William Gallo was swayed by his affection for the military when he ruled last week . Gallo, a 27-year Marine Corps veteran, stayed his decision pending the government’s appeal.

Prosecutors described Nicholas Bickle, 33, of San Diego, as a flight risk and a danger to the community.

“This case presents a situation where the defendant, a rogue Navy SEAL, devised a way to smuggle large amounts of firearms back from the Middle East, with the sole intention of selling them here … along with other military items he had stolen, like C-4 explosives and grenades,” prosecutors wrote.

A criminal complaint was filed Oct. 29 in Las Vegas against Bickle; Andrew Kaufman of Las Vegas; and Richard Paul of Durango, Colo. Each faces a conspiracy charge. Prosecutors describe Bickle as the conspiracy’s leader.

Prosecutors also have said they intend to seek indictments on other charges, including distributing explosive materials, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The defendants were arrested Nov. 3, following a five-month investigation, in the cities where they live. Judges in Las Vegas and Colorado ordered Kaufman and Paul kept in custody until trial.

Bickle appeared before Gallo on Nov. 12 after submitting about 60 letters of support. A Navy commander and about 20 SEALS also packed the courtroom.

“The government believes … Magistrate Judge Gallo was unduly influenced by his own experience in, and affection for, the military, and those who serve in it, and as such showed excessive deference and even a borderline bias, when he made his ruling in this case,” prosecutors wrote in their appeal.

Prosecutors said Bickle is a flight risk because he has no family ties in the San Diego area; could face 14 to 17 years in prison if convicted; could face discharge and separate Navy charges; has contacts all over the world who could assist him if he decided to flee the United States; and made large amounts of money from criminal activity that began nearly two years ago, if not earlier.

“We believe that he has money stashed away somewhere … and could easily tap into that money to support himself should he choose to flee,” they wrote.

They also described Navy Cmdr. Tom Chaby’s support of Bickle as self-serving, “because he could conceivably stand to be punished for failing to properly supervise Bickle.”

Gallo cited Chaby’s presence in the courtroom as a reason for his willingness to release Bickle on $150,000 bond.

“You had Cmdr. Chaby. You had all of these other folks come in, and that means something to me,” the judge told Bickle. “That means that you might be worth taking a risk on, even though these charges are serious.”

According to the government’s appeal, one SEAL who wrote a letter of support for Bickle “is the very same person” who told federal agents that “Bickle had a locker with a false bottom in it that he used to smuggle things back when he returned from overseas.”

“He also told agents that Bickle was very vague and secretive about everything he did, and was a serious drinker,” prosecutors wrote.

During the hearing in San Diego, prosecutors showed Gallo a picture of a footlocker found in Bickle’s storage unit.

“The metal locker contained a piece of wood that … gave it a false bottom, under which several firearms could be hidden,” according to the appeal.

It said Bickle is a danger to his co-conspirators and had threatened to harm anyone who might turn on him. Prosecutors contend all conspirators have agreed to testify against Bickle.

Prosecutors argue that Bickle also is a danger to “this and many other communities.” An uncharged co-conspirator “made it very clear to the members of the conspiracy, including Bickle, that he was buying the machine guns to take across the border to Mexico to use there,” they wrote.

“The conspiracy would not have been possible were it not for the defendant, Nicholas Bickle,” prosecutors wrote. “Bickle … smuggled back in excess of 100 firearms when he returned from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. … Bickle was actually in charge of weapons for his platoon during his last deployment, which would explain the access he had to all of the weapons and explosives involved in this case.”

Conspirators have said those weapons included about 80 untraceable Iraqi and Afghani machine guns. Prosecutors said the guns sold for $1,300 to $2,400 each.

“It is important to note that we have only recovered less than 1/3 of the firearms this organization was alleged to have sold, and we have no idea where the rest are, or to whom they were sold,” prosecutors wrote in their appeal.

The appeal is pending before U.S. District Judge James Mahan in Las Vegas.

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

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