NEW YORK — A former U.S. Army sniper and two other ex-American soldiers agreed to become contract killers for an international crime boss who wanted to settle a score with a real estate agent in the Philippines he thought had cheated him on a land deal, a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements at the trial of the three men.
Joseph Hunter, a onetime sergeant with a Special Forces background, Adam Samia and Carl David Stillwell have denied they planned the 2012 execution-style hit — a case that's provided an inside glimpse into the secret fraternity of private mercenaries willing to kill in cold blood for cash.
Prosecutors said the 52-year-old Hunter was working as a security chief for weapons and drug trafficker Paul Le Roux when he recruited Samia and Stillwell to travel from their homes in Roxboro, North Carolina, to the Philippines for what was called "ninja work." Hunter provided firearms and silencers and told them Le Roux would pay them $35,000 a piece to get the job done, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Egan said in federal court in Manhattan.
The broker, Catherine Lee, was on a "kill list" that self-styled assassins with military backgrounds saw as a golden opportunity, Egan said.
"If Paul Le Roux wanted somebody killed, these guys got the call," he said. "For these men, more murders meant more money."
Samia, 43, and Stillwell, 50, did surveillance on Lee before contacting her pretending to be potential clients, the prosecutor said. While returning from a trip to the countryside outside of Manila, Samia pulled out a .22-caliber gun and killed Lee by shooting her twice in the face as she sat in the back seat of a van, he said.
Lee's body was found on a pile of garbage on the side of the road, Egan said. After being paid, her killers were ordered back to the United States, where they were arrested in 2015.
An investigation turned up a picture on Stillwell's phone of a bloody head wrapped in a towel that was taken around the time of Lee's death, authorities said. He also admitted being behind the wheel of the van when she was shot, they added.
Prosecutors said other evidence includes a secretly recorded video of Hunter from a sting in Thailand that resulted in a separate conviction for plotting to kill a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. They said he's overheard talking about killing people for Le Roux, including a Filipino real-estate agent.
On Tuesday, defense attorneys asked jurors to keep an open mind, saying the case lacked eyewitness, forensic and other conclusive evidence needed to convict. They also told them not to trust shady government witnesses like Le Roux, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating.
Hunter's attorney, Cesar De Castro, suggested the government couldn't prove its case.
Samia only agreed "to do legitimate, legal security work," said his lawyer, Jeremy Schneider. Stillman's lawyer, Robert Ray, didn't deny his client's statements about being in the van but claimed he never joined a murder conspiracy.
"It just didn't happen," Ray said.