The Mastermind: Updates

By Evan Ratliff

Supreme Court Weighs Use of Confession in Drug Lord Murder-for-Hire Case

April 3, 2023—Last Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Adam Samia, a North Carolina man convicted of carrying out a murder-for-hire plot in the Philippines over a decade ago. The legal question before the court is whether introducing a confession by one codefendant, in a joint trial, violates the Sixth Amendment rights of another. The practical question is whether there will be yet another twist in the story of a brutal murder ordered by the programmer turned kingpin Paul Calder Le Roux, whose jaw-dropping saga is recounted in “The Mastermind.”  

The case dates back to a February morning in 2011, when a garbage collector outside Manila discovered the body of a real estate agent named Catherine Lee. She’d been shot twice in the face and left by the road in a pile of trash. Witnesses told police that they’d last seen Lee getting into a van with two men who went by the names “Tony” and “Bill.” The men claimed to have come from Canada to look at properties. With nothing but an artist’s sketch to go on, Philippine authorities were left without a suspect.  

A break in the case finally arrived in 2012, when the DEA arrested Le Roux, a self-taught coder born in Zimbabwe. Over nearly a decade, Le Roux had built a global criminal empire from a base in Manila, first earning hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers online, then diversifying into large-scale narcotics and weapons trafficking, backed by violence. After falling for an elaborate DEA sting operation in Liberia, he was flown to New York and promptly agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Le Roux offered up details about crimes that U.S. authorities hadn’t even known about, including Lee’s murder.

Le Roux told prosecutors that in order to dispatch a growing list of traitors and enemies, he’d created a “kill team” of mercenaries led by a former U.S. Army soldier named Joseph “Rambo” Hunter. In 2011, Le Roux added Lee to the list, believing that she’d stolen money from him in a real estate deal. Hunter, Le Roux claimed, had hired two men from North Carolina to travel to the Philippines and carry out the hit—Adam Samia and Carl David Stillwell, aka “Tony” and “Bill.” They’d been paid a fee of around $35,000 apiece.

In 2015, federal agents descended on Roxboro, North Carolina, to arrest Samia and Stillwell. Under questioning, both admitted that they’d flown to Manila. But in a moment that would eventually lead the Supreme Court to take up the case, Stillwell went further. He confessed that he’d been the driver of the van where Lee was shot.

“I didn’t kill anyone, gentlemen,” he told two DEA agents. “But I was there, and things I may have done led to that.”

“Did Adam Samia pull the trigger on that woman?” one agent asked.

“Yes,” Stillwell said.

In April 2018, Hunter, Samia, and Stillwell were tried together in federal court in Manhattan for their participation in Lee’s murder. The judge, Ronnie Abrams, denied a defense motion to sever the cases and try each man separately. This raised a thorny issue around Stillwell’s confession. Since Stillwell had directly implicated Samia, and since Stillwell wouldn’t be testifying in his own defense, the prosecution’s use of the confession could violate Samia’s Sixth Amendment right to “confront,” or cross examine, witnesses against him. To sidestep that problem, Judge Abrams ruled that Stillwell’s confession be “redacted” for the jury, replacing references to Samia with neutral language such as “somebody else” and “another person.” 

In opening statements, a federal prosecutor wasted no time in highlighting the confession, informing jurors that in “crucial” testimony, they would hear how “David Stillwell admitted to driving the car while the man he was with turned around and shot Catherine Lee.” Judge Abrams instructed the jury to consider Stillwell’s confession only in the question of his own guilt. But over the course of the two-week trial, the prosecution’s case left little doubt that “the man” referred to in Stillwell’s account was sitting at a defense table beside him. Hunter was only accused of hiring the killers, leaving the jury with one option for the shooter: Adam Samia.

Adam Samia (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

On the stand, the DEA agent who’d elicited Stillwell’s confession described in detail how Samia and Stillwell were arrested on the same day, and that Samia had admitted to traveling to the Philippines and receiving Western Union wires totaling between $20,000 and $30,000 dollars. Asked about Stillwell’s confession, the agent switched into redaction mode, testifying only that Stillwell admitted he’d “met somebody else” in the Philippines, and that “he and that other individual had traveled outside of Manila to view a property.”

“Did he say where [Lee] was when she was killed?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes,” the agent said. “He described a time when the other person he was with pulled the trigger on that woman in a van that he and Mr. Stillwell was driving.”

The prosecution had other evidence implicating Samia, albeit largely circumstantial. In Samia’s house in North Carolina, police found a key to the van where Lee was killed. There were travel and Western Union records, and emails from Hunter telling Samia to be ready for “ninja stuff.” Then there was testimony from Paul Le Roux himself. “Joseph Hunter told me that the kill team consisting of Adam Samia and his partner were the ones that killed Catherine Lee,” Le Roux said.

Carl David Stillwell (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Samia took the stand in his own defense. The “ninja stuff” in the Philippines, he said, was just martial arts training for locals. He’d mostly been treated “like an errand boy” on Hunter’s team, he said—he was given a key to the van to do airport pickups. As for the wire transfers, he testified that those were for mixed-martial-arts fights he’d won in Manila.

In a closing statement, the prosecutor dutifully reminded the jury that “Stillwell’s confession is admissible only against him.” But the admonition almost seemed intended to achieve the opposite: to underline the conclusion that it was surely Samia whom Stillwell had identified as the shooter. In any case, the jury was convinced that each of the men had played a role in the murder plot: Hunter as the organizer, Stillwell as the driver, and Samia as the shooter. All three were found guilty. Judge Abrams sentenced each of them to life.

For Samia, last Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing represented his last best chance to avoid spending the remainder of his life in federal prison. The decision will hinge on the court’s interpretation of a 1968 case, Bruton v. United States. The case held that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment confrontation clause prohibits introducing a confession by one codefendant that explicitly implicates another. Subsequent cases clarified the ruling, establishing that certain redactions could solve the problem of shielding jurors from the identity of the person referred to by the confessor. The question in Samia’s case is whether the redactions were sufficient.

Samia’s appellate lawyer, Kannon Shanmugam, stepped to the podium and outlined his argument for why they were not. “It is likely, indeed inevitable, that the jury inferred that the confession here implicated [Samia],” Shanmugam said. “To adopt an approach like the government’s would be to undo Bruton in practical effect.” The court should consider the redacted confession in context, Shanmugam argued. The other evidence in the trial made the conclusion that the “other person” who pulled the trigger was Samia inevitable.

The government countered that the confession should be considered in isolation. Taken on its own, the “other person” could have been anyone. And even if not, argued Caroline Flynn, the assistant to the solicitor general, Judge Abrams’s jury instructions were enough to protect Samia from an unfair trial. “If the jury is instructed not to consider a piece of evidence against a criminal defendant, and the jury follows that instruction, then there is no confrontation clause problem,” she said.

The justices sparred with both lawyers over exactly what redactions might have solved the problem, if any. Justices Elana Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sonya Sotomayor appeared to embrace the idea that even a redacted confession harmed a codefendant like Samia. Kagan offered up a hypothetical in which “John and Mary go out and they rob Bill, and they’re found out, and they’re put on trial together.” What if, Kagan said, Bill then confesses that “she and I went out and robbed Bill,” or “the woman and I went out and robbed Bill.”

“It’s just as good to say ‘The woman and I went out and robbed Bill’ as it is to say ‘Mary, the person sitting on my left, went out and robbed Bill,’” Kagan noted.

The conservative justices appeared highly skeptical of Samia’s claims. Justice Samuel Alito asked why Samia’s defense hadn’t proposed different redactions. When Shanmugam responded that the defense had asked the judge to sever the cases, Alito appeared unimpressed. “You’re dancing around the question,” the justice said.

Whether Judge Abrams’s jury instructions had been enough to protect Samia raised more esoteric questions. Jurors are often asked to forget or ignore something they’ve heard in court. But to what extent can the human mind push aside what it already knows? “We treat them as competent to respect that line,” Justice Neil Gorsuch observed. “Do we have any social science,” he asked, that one kind of evidence “is more impossible to put out of [a juror’s] mind than the other?”

“I’m reminded of a familiar phrase from a Fifth Circuit opinion,” Shanmugam said in his closing argument. “If you throw a skunk in the jury box, you can’t instruct the jurors not to smell it. And I would submit that this is a case in which the government not only threw a skunk into the jury box but pointed to it repeatedly.”

For Samia, a ruling in his favor would trigger a new trial, one without codefendants and without the confession. But the fundamental irony of his case has remained constant from the beginning: Paul Calder Le Roux, the man who’d ordered and paid for Catherine Lee’s murder, was never charged with it. After cooperating with authorities, testifying, and pleading guilty to drug crimes and selling weapons technology to Iran, he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison—while his alleged henchmen received life sentences. If Samia were to be granted a retrial, it would provide another chance for Le Roux to take a turn as star witness for the U.S. government.  

New revelations about Catherine Lee’s accused killers

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, Carl 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.

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.

According to prosecutors, Carl 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!”

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.