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David Packouz talks about nanotech the way 12-year-old girls talk about Zac Efron. In a great, fawning gush of words, he explains it will bring about a technological utopia on Earth. Humans, he says, will interface with computers, replace their bodies with machinery, and become immortal. Spacecraft will mine asteroids, and robots will reach human levels of intelligence and self-replicate. "At that point," he says, looking excited and a little worried, "we can only hope that the robots are friendly."
Packouz is 26 years old and has a shaved head; perfect, pale skin; a slightly menacing goatee; and deep-set light blue eyes. He's wearing black slacks and a navy blue button-down shirt with sneakers. When his BlackBerry buzzes, which it does constantly, he excuses himself, knocks out a text message, and returns to conversation in the manner of a friendly businessman. He laughs often and chats enthusiastically about religion, science, philosophy, and politics. ("I'm a total nerd," he admits.) His hero, listed on his MySpace page, is the Little Train That Could.
You'd never know he's an aspiring pop star, a massage therapist, and an accused arms dealer — or that he faces a possible 500-year jail term. You couldn't guess from hearing or seeing him that he was vice president of a firm that allegedly conspired with the Albanian prime minister and his son, as well as a U.S. ambassador and a Swiss arms trafficker, to procure cheap ammo from dumps, strip it of Chinese markings, and sell it to the U.S. government for tens of millions of dollars. But indeed, this past June 20, federal prosecutors charged him and three others who worked for a Miami company called AEY with conspiracy, lying, and procurement fraud. So far, no trial date has been set. The case has been covered around the world.
"People are saying that we're screwing our allies by giving them crappy shit," says Packouz, who — like his fellow accused arms dealers — hasn't spoken to the press until now. "You know, everything that we gave them while I was there worked perfectly."
David Packouz's story begins with his father, Kalman Packouz. A rabbi, he founded the first branch of Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah), a global Orthodox organization, in St. Louis in 1979. A year later, he created the Jewish Computer Dating Service, one of the first of its kind.
David was born in St. Louis on February 16, 1982. The family moved to Jerusalem three weeks later and stayed eight years before relocating to Miami Beach. He's one of nine children. "[David] had a normal childhood — nothing outstanding," his mother, Shoshana Packouz, says in a small, soothing voice with a hint of weariness. "He loved science and liked to read science fiction. He was always a very deep thinker."
In his senior year at a Jewish high school, Packouz had his first run-in with trouble. He says he smoked pot every day and even grew psychedelic mushrooms while maintaining straight A's. But a drug test outed him and he was expelled (though issued a diploma). His parents sent him to an Israeli program for wayward teens. "Now that was a little bit ridiculous, wasn't it?" he says. "I mean, I definitely wasn't a drug addict."
The school in Israel took students who had become nonreligious and used drugs. But it wasn't strict. Some of Packouz's friends went there too, and he had a wonderful time — he was even able to drop acid on the shore of the Dead Sea. "I was with a few friends," he says. "We were tripping on acid when we came across this guy, this American old hippie, and his name was Moses.... I actually experienced infinity."
He studied for a time in Israel and then enrolled at the University of Florida, where he stayed for two semesters before dropping out to become a massage therapist. In 2005, he briefly studied chemistry at Miami Dade College before running into Efraim Diveroli, the 19-year-old CEO of AEY Inc., an arms dealership in Miami.
"And now the whole world knows Efraim," Packouz says with a sigh before explaining he had known Diveroli when they were kids. At the time, Packouz was looking for something to do, and his longtime acquaintance was looking for a partner. So, when Diveroli offered the vice presidency of AEY Inc., a munitions company he had inherited at age 19 from his father, Packouz accepted.
Soon, Packouz says, he got married to a fellow massage therapist named Sarah, and in February 2007 their daughter Annabelle was born. A month earlier, the U.S. Army had awarded AEY a $298 million contract to equip the Afghan security forces, which NATO was training. Suddenly, AEY was among the largest suppliers of arms to Afghanistan and a pillar in the fight against the Taliban.
By then, Diveroli was 21 years old and ran the company from an unmarked office, according to Packouz. AEY had only a few employees. Most were twentysomethings. Packouz doesn't say much about the job. He mentions traveling to arms expos in Abu Dhabi and Las Vegas. In a photo on his MySpace page, buried among others of him playing the guitar and standing over a massage table, he smiles in front of a tank draped with a corporate slogan. In another picture, he poses with a gun in one hand and a steel briefcase in the other. The caption reads,"We only have the finest AK-47s in stock."