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Team of contract killers led by ex-soldier 'Rambo' busted, prosecutors say

Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

Thai policemen escort American Joseph Hunter, 48, as he arrives at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok on Friday.

A sharp-shooting former Army sergeant nicknamed Rambo has been charged with recruiting ex-soldiers as globe-trotting hitmen for drug traffickers in a scheme that prosecutors said could have been "ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel."

Three members of the gang were ready to assassinate a federal agent for an $800,000 payoff, and one of them boasted that murder-for-hire was "fun," according to court papers outlining an elaborate four-continent sting operation.

"The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

"Three of the defendants were ready, willing and eager to take cold hard cash to commit the cold-blooded murders of a DEA agent and an informant."

The accused ringleader was Joseph "Rambo" Hunter, 48, whose family told NBC News he was mysterious about his international activities and they had no idea he had been arrested.

Hunter was in the U.S. Army from 1983 to 2004, serving as a sniper instructor and senior drill sergeant, according to the indictment unsealed Friday.

After leaving the military, he launched a new career as a contract killer who "has arranged for the murders of multiple people," the court papers charge.

"These were consummated, completed contract killings," Bharara said at a Friday press conference, without providing details of the killings, which occurred overseas.

"And because it was clear that Hunter was a threat to the public and to public safety around the world, our partners at the [DEA] Special Operations Division set out to stop him."

As the feds hatched an operation to take down Hunter, he embarked on a twisted form of head-hunting: collecting resumes over the Internet for a security team that would do "the dirty work" of narcotics kingpins, Bharara said.

Hunter allegedly recruited four other ex-soldiers — one American, two from Germany and one from Poland — to support what he thought was a massive Colombian-based cocaine-smuggling operation.

Investigators say Hunter's Colombian contacts were actually confidential federal sources, who recorded the gang of five's chilling chit-chat as they traveled the world for the criminal enterprise.

Five ex-soldiers, led, by a former Army sergeant nicknamed Rambo, has been charged with recruiting hitmen in a drug-traffickers scheme, says Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The cabal went to Thailand in March, the African nation of Mauritius in April, and the Bahamas in June to perform surveillance and soon signed on for a more nefarious undertaking: the murder of a law-enforcement officer, officials said.

Hunter enlisted two of the men, German sniper Dennis "Nico" Gogel and U.S. Army veteran Timothy "Tay" Vamvakias for what he called a "bonus job" — a plot to murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and an informant in Liberia for $800,000.

Visas and plane tickets were obtained, a submachine gun and .22-caliber pistols were ordered, and sophisticated Hollywood-style latex face masks, which could make someone appear to be of another race, were shipped to Africa.

With Hunter "quarterbacking" the operation from Thailand, Gogel, 27, and Vamakias, 42, flew to Liberia earlier this week with plans to carry out the twin assassinations, Bharara said. By then, the DEA "had seen enough" and took them down, the prosecutor said.

The indictment portrays the men as blood-thirsty, quoting from an email in which Hunter said of his team, "They also, really want a bonus job after this next mission, if available."

During a conversation with one of the undercover sources in June, two of the men swapped ideas about how best to kill the DEA agent and the informant, including machine guns, cyanide or a grenade, authorities said.

During one meeting, Gogel cheerfully offered himself up for more "bonus jobs" in the future, the indictment says.

"That's fun, actually for me, that's fun," he was quoted as saying in court papers. "I love this work."

Vamvakias and Gogel were arrested in Liberia and quietly brought to Manhattan and presented in federal court on Thursday. German-trained sniper Michael "Paul" Filter, 29, and Slawomir "Gerald" Soborski, 40, a Polish counterterrorism expert, were arrested in Estonia this week and will be extradited.

Hunter, who was busted in the tourist mecca of Phuket in Thailand, is due in court on Saturday.

Reached by phone in his native Kentucky, Hunter's wife was stunned to learn of the charges against her husband.

“We don’t know anything about what he does,” she said.

Hunter's stepson said they last heard from him a few days ago.

“Whenever he contacts us, he’s in Thailand or the Philippines,” he said. “We don’t know what he does. He never tells us anything.”

The U.S. Army confirmed that Hunter served more than 20 years and was highly decorated when he retired. He and Vamvakias were stationed at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico between 2002 and 2004 and both earned awards for expert marksmanship.

Bharara noted that the accusations were the stuff of airport thrillers.

"The bone-chilling allegations in today's indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel," he said.

The DEA special agent in charge of special operations, Derek Maltz, added, "As much as this indictment reads like the script of a movie, it's real, it happened."

NBC News' Courtney Kube contributed to this report.




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