Wednesday, October 5, 2011
LAS VEGAS A Navy SEAL accused of trafficking firearms from Iraq is currently standing trial in federal district court in Las Vegas. The government is trying to convince the jury that Nicholas Bickle – who was based in San Diego – was the source of dozens of firearms and explosives that were illegally distributed and sold throughout the Southwest.
The Navy Petty Officer First Class is facing a 15-count indictment. Attorneys are scheduled to give closing arguments Wednesday morning and the jury is expected to begin deliberating Wednesday afternoon.
Every day since the trial began on Sept. 19, federal prosecutors have wheeled into the courtroom a cart of about 50 weapons. They include assault rifles and pistols, many of which the US Attorney’s Office alleges Nicholas Bickle brought back from his deployments.
And every day, the 33-year old defendant has worn his formal navy blue uniform, including his many medals.
The fact that Bickle is a Navy SEAL is a key part of this case. The Navy SEALs are one of the most elite branches of the military. It was a SEAL team that was dispatched to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Prosecutors allege the relative autonomy Bickle enjoyed as a SEAL gave him the chance to steal weapons.
“They are often times given much more independence in how to conduct their missions and operate. They operate in much smaller size units,” Hansen said. “It certainly opens itself up to an opportunity for somebody who wants to abuse the system to have that chance more so than your typical military unit.”
Bickle joined the Navy in 2004 and became a SEAL the following year. He served two successful tours in Iraq. Yet the prosecution alleges Bickle was also making a lucrative profit by illegally dealing firearms.
They said he brought the weapons back to San Diego, where he was stationed at Naval Base Coronado. Some of the weapons had markings showing they were from the Iraqi military, according to prosecutors. They also claim he distributed the weapons to two men in Las Vegas and a friend in Colorado, who then sold them and gave Bickle a portion of the cash.
The other three original co-defendants in the case have confessed and took plea deals that implicate Bickle. One former co-defendant, Rick Paul, was a childhood friend of Bickle’s who testified against him in court.
But Bickle's attorney opened the trial by suggesting the former co-defendants in the case are untrustworthy and are only interested in lightening their own sentences.
“The government has told you the story from its perspective. But there is more you will hear when the tale unfolds,” defense attorney James Pokorny told the jury in his opening remarks. “You will learn that the hands on witnesses in this case are either drug dealers, drug users, convicts, or all three.”
The defense argued it would have been impossible for Bickle to bring the weapons into the United States undetected.
Bickle Defense Motion
“These witnesses will tell you how unlikely it is that the weapons the government points to could be smuggled from a deployment and into the U.S. without someone noticing it,” Pokorny told the jury, referencing the Navy witnesses he called to the stand.
Still, the prosecution presented financial and phone records that paint a picture of Bickle as an illegal gun dealer.
In a surprising moment during the trial, Hollywood director Peter Berg took the witness stand. Berg is known for directing the TV show and movie Friday Night Lights. He befriended Bickle in Iraq in 2009 when he was there researching a new film.
Berg testified he met up with Bickle in San Diego after they returned from the Middle East. He said Bickle gave him an AK-47 that the Navy Seal said was a souvenir from Iraq. The filmmaker also said Bickle saved his life in Iraq, and the lives of others.
If convicted, Bickle could be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.