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The Mastermind: Updates

New revelations about Catherine Lee’s accused killers

By Evan Ratliff

March 17, 2016—A day after we released “An Arrogant Way of Killing,” the first episode of “The Mastermind,” court documents revealed striking new information about the murderer of Catherine Lee. On Friday, prosecutors filed a bombshell letter in the case, claiming that one of the Americans accused in that murder, David Stillwell, retained cell phone photos dated the day of Lee’s murder—photos that “appear to depict, among other things, a white van similar to the one in which (according to witness accounts) Lee was murdered and a wounded human head.” Catherine Lee’s body was found on February 12, 2012, shot twice underneath each eye.

According to prosecutors, David Stillwell posted this photo on his Facebook page in November 2014, with the caption, “Welcome Blood Money to the family! She is wearing her winter color for now… Soon to show up in her new warpaint!”

As I reported, Lee was the victim of a dispute with Paul Le Roux, her alleged execution ordered by Joseph “Rambo” Hunter. Since July, when Stillwell and his alleged accomplice Adam Samia were arrested in North Carolina, the scope of the evidence against them has been unclear. I’d reported on some of it based on exclusive police reports and information from Rizaldy Rivera, an agent at the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation. Recent filings concerning Samia’s request for bail show that some of that evidence—such as how many witnesses identified the two from photo lineups—may not be as strong as Rivera believed. But prosecutors have also disclosed new evidence, including surveillance photos of Lee’s workplace from Samia’s camera, itineraries from the Philippine trip, and excerpts from Facebook chats in which Samia talks about the arrest of Hunter and wonders if he might be next.

The new filings also included one snippet of Stillwell’s alleged confession, which I reported on in Episode 1, fingering Samia as the gunman. Without context, it is impossible to know under what circumstances Stillwell made those statements, and whether they have any hope of holding up in court. Prosecutors also included a photograph from Stillwell’s Facebook page in which he poses with a new motorcycle he calls “Blood Money.”

The filings did clear up one key mystery for me: how Samia and Stillwell were allegedly recruited for the crime. Samia, the filing asserts, began working for Hunter and Dave Smith, Le Roux’s head of security, in 2008, transporting gold to and from places ranging from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. More on that in an upcoming episode.

Read the full text of the prosecution’s letter.

Joseph ‘Rambo’ Hunter, Paul Le Roux’s Former Enforcer, Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison

By Evan Ratliff

May 31, 2016 — Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, a one-time enforcer for the criminal kingpin Paul Le Roux, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison this morning in a Lower Manhattan courtroom. A decorated former U.S. soldier from Kentucky, Hunter had pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges including conspiracy to murder a federal agent and import narcotics. Wearing a navy blue prison jumpsuit, Hunter stood calmly as Judge Laura Swain outlined his punishment for what she called “grave and serious crimes.”

The DEA arrested Hunter in September 2013 in Thailand, following an elaborate sting operation carried out with the help of Le Roux, who had been in U.S. custody since being captured in Liberia a year earlier. At the direction of Le Roux, his on-and-off employer since 2009, Hunter recruited a group of ex-military men from around the world to provide security for what they believed was a Colombian drug cartel. As I traced in Episode 6 of “The Mastermind,” that work included monitoring drug shipments and plotting the murder of a DEA agent and his informant inside the cartel.

The cartel, drug shipments, agent, and informant were all concoctions of the DEA. But Hunter’s enthusiastic participation in the plot was captured on video and audio recordings at a safe house in Phuket, and in emails between Hunter and Le Roux, whom Hunter believed was still at large. In the face of that evidence, Hunter and his four codefendants (two of whom faced only drug-related charges) all pleaded guilty. American Timothy Vamvakias and German Denis Gögel were each sentenced to 20 years for their involvement in the murder-for-hire plan.

Hunter’s attorneys, arguing for a ten-year sentence at his hearing, asserted that Le Roux had threatened Hunter over a bungled gold deal early in Hunter’s employment, a fact that my reporting confirmed. They also presented evidence that Hunter suffered from PTSD as a result of his time as a decorated soldier and his subsequent work as a contractor in Iraq. Marlon Kirton, one of Hunter’s lawyers, noted that Hunter’s PTSD had created a “heightened sense of fear” that made him particularly vulnerable Le Roux’s threats. “Mr. Le Roux is a man with money, a man with international connections, and most importantly, he knows where Mr. Hunter lives,” Kirton said.

Federal prosecutors countered that Hunter had once left Le Roux’s employment and returned at a higher salary, and that he had turned down other Le Roux assignments, both with no consequences. “To the extent that Paul Le Roux ran an organization that was dangerous,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove said in court, “it was dangerous because he had men like Joseph Hunter working for him.” Bove cited an expert questioning Hunter’s PTSD diagnosis, and argued that even if it was correct, “people with PTSD do not go out and commit murder.”

Ultimately Judge Swain largely sided with the prosecution in those arguments. But she nevertheless deviated downwards from federal sentencing guidelines covering Hunter’s crimes—under which he faced between 24 and 30 years—citing his acceptance of responsibility, his military service, and the fact that he would enter prison at age 51.

“Much has happened in the last few years, most of which I would not wish on anyone,” Hunter said when offered a chance to make a pre-sentencing statement. He apologized to the court and “the citizens of the United States.” Hunter then choked up when addressing family and friends. “They are not embarrassed by me or ashamed of me,” he said, “but I have shamed them.”

Le Roux, meanwhile, remains in U.S. custody waiting for another federal judge to decide his fate, having negotiated his own plea agreement. He faces anywhere from ten years to life.

You can read all the installments of “The Mastermind” here.