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Ex-U.S. Army Sniper Instructor Nabbed In Thai 'Hit Squad' Sting

Joseph Manuel Hunter (center) is escorted by Thai police commandos to Police Aviation Division after being arrested, in Bangkok on Thursday.
Sakchai Lalit
Associated Press
Joseph Manuel Hunter (center) is escorted by Thai police commandos to Police Aviation Division after being arrested, in Bangkok on Thursday.

Two former U.S. Army sergeants are among those facing charges in connection with an alleged international hit squad after their extradition from Thailand in a case the prosecuting U.S. attorney says reads like a Tom Clancy novel.

Joseph Manuel Hunter, 48, nicknamed "Rambo," was arrested by Thai authorities after a sting operation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, along with Timothy Vamvakias and at least three others on the resort island of Phuket on Thursday.

Accomplices Dennis Gogel and Michael Filter are from Germany, according to The Associated Press. Another alleged accomplice, Slawomir Soborski, is from Poland. All are former soldiers, according to the charges filed in New York.

Hunter, who was a sergeant first class when he left the Army, had served as an air-assault and airborne-infantry squad leader, a sniper instructor and a drill sergeant, the charges say. Vamvakias attained the rank of sergeant after having served in South Korea and Puerto Rico. Both left the Army in 2004.

Since then, the charging documents say, "Hunter has acted as a 'contract killer'; for pay, he has succeeded in arranging for the murder of a number of people."

The charges say the defendants "joined a conspiracy to import large volumes of cocaine into the United States. As part of this conspiracy, the defendants put their military skills to use."

In a statement, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the alleged plot "bone chilling" and said the "indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel."

"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," Bharara said.

Informants working for the DEA posed as Colombian cartel members purporting to hire Hunter and two others for $700,000 for two killings. Hunter was to get an additional $100,000 "for his leadership role," according to the indictment.

The AP says:

"In late 2012, according to the indictment, Hunter 'collected resumes via email for prospective members of the security team.'

"Hunter told the informants that 'he himself had previously done "bonus jobs" ' — code for contract killings, and that his team 'wanted to do as much "bonus work" as possible,' according to the indictment.

"Hunter and his accomplices were 'willing and eager to take cold hard cash to commit the cold-blooded murders of a DEA agent and an informant,' Bharara said. 'Thanks to the determined, skillful and intrepid efforts of the DEA's Special Operations Division, an international hit team has been neutralized by agents working on four continents.' "

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.