Feds Used Miami's "Merchant of Death" to Catch Ex-CIA Smugglers, Secret Docs Show

Sarkis Soghanalian once sold weapons to warring countries across the globe from his Hibiscus Island mansion, earning the nickname the "Merchant of Death" while becoming one of the biggest arms dealers on earth during the Cold War.

Soghanalian's larger-than-life exploits partly inspired Nicolas Cage's character in the 2005 movie, Lord of War, but much of his life has remained shrouded in secrecy and lies. Until last week, that is, when the FBI released thousands of pages of classified files on the arms dealer.

Among the most amazing stories the new documents illuminate is how Soghanalian wriggled out of a potential two-decade prison sentence in Miami federal court by snitching on two ex-CIA fugitives.

See also: Newt Gingrich Once Probed by FBI Over Ties to Miami Arms Dealer Sarkis Soghanalian

The tale shows Soghanalian at his slippery best, first conning a war-torn African nation out of more than a million bucks for guns that never arrived, then avoiding fraud charges by taking out the competition.

The escapade started, the documents show, when Soghanalian became partner with a British arms merchant in a $1.2 million deal in 1977 to get French rifles to the government of Mauritania, which was locked in a bloody fight with rebels.

When the guns never arrived, the partner brought fraud charges against Soghanalian in Miami federal court; after a two-year investigation, prosecutors hit the Hibiscus Island-based arms dealer with 29 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, and transporting stolen property. He faced up to 20 years in prison.

But in a never-before revealed deal, Soghanalian skirted the time by bringing down a highly sought after ex-CIA operative named Edwin P. Wilson and trying to help the feds nab another named Frank Terpil.

The intel is detailed in an official letter dated March 24, 1982, from U.S. attorney Stanley Harris, who was the deputy chief of major crimes at the time, to a special assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.

Harris writes that Soghanalian met with him in DC and provided information into the investigation of Terpil and Wilson, both of whom were wanted for illegally selling weapons to Libya.

"In determining what disposition and/or sentence may be appropriate, however, I felt it necessary to bring to your attention the nature and extent of Mr. Soghanalian's cooperation thus far with this office," Harris wrote. "Because our efforts to recover these fugitives are ongoing, I would appreciate your handling the information in this letter on an extremely sensitive basis."

Wilson was eventually lured to the Dominican Republic where he was arrested. He spent 22 years in prison and died in 2012. Terpil, however, is still on the run, living as a free man to this day in Havana.

Soghanalian, meanwhile, took a plea deal and agreed to pay restitution. He wouldn't stay free for long, though.

He was arrested again in 1986 at the Miami International Airport when he was caught in possession of several unregistered rocket launchers and machine guns. But instead of being convicted of a crime, a federal judge dropped all charges a couple of years later.

In a twist of irony, Soghanalian was eventually convicted was ordered to spend six years in prison for selling helicopters and rocket launchers to Iraq, but only served two years after his sentenced was reduced by a federal judge. He was released in 1993.

Soghanalian died poor in Miami in 2011.

The latest Soghanalian story comes via more than 2,500 partially redacted documents, which were released using the Freedom of Information Act via Vice and the National Security Archives, who began asking for documents shortly after the arms dealer's death.

Send story tips to author David Minsky to his e-mail, Twitter or Instagram.


Follow Miami New Times on Facebook.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >