Family members sentenced in gun smuggling
No sentences yet for 2 others with lead roles in arms-to-Lebanon conspiracy
CEDAR RAPIDS — Two family members convicted of smuggling guns from Cedar Rapids to Lebanon have been sentenced to federal prison.
Adam Al Herz, 23, received a 20-year sentence and his aunt, Sarah Zeaiter, 24, received seven years for their parts in smuggling 252 handguns and military style assault rifles in 2014 and 2015.
Zeaiter received less prison time but now she faces other legal consequences. She is a Lebanese rather than American citizen. U.S. District Chief Judge Linda Reade said she didn’t know whether Zeaiter would be deported.
Sentencings for Zeaiter’s husband, Bassem Herz, 31, and his brother, Ali Al Herz, 51, who also pleaded in the conspiracy, have started but both are arguing for lesser sentences. Neither the prosecution nor defense wrapped up their evidence Friday, so Reade continued Ali Al Herz’s hearing to Oct. 31. Bassem Herz’s hearing hasn’t been set.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy said during sentencings the four family members were sending guns into Hezbollah territory. Hezbollah is a known terrorist organization that has a “strong presence” in southern Lebanon. Two shipments of weapons were sent in 2014 and two more in 2015 were headed to the region, but those shipments were intercepted by authorities, Murphy said.
The Al Herz family knew those weapons could end up with Hezbollah because they’re from a village in southern Lebanon, Murphy said, and Adam Al Herz’s father, Ali Al Herz, still owns a house there.
Murphy said no evidence linked family members to Hezbollah, but at the least “it’s extremely reckless and dangerous conduct.”
Adam Al Herz, pleaded guilty in March to firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act, in that he did not have a license to export firearms.
Sarah Zeaiter, pleaded guilty to firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act.
The four family members legally obtained weapons and ammunition from dealers in Eastern Iowa, buying an estimated 252 firearms in 17 months, according to plea agreements and criminal complaints. They concealed them within Bobcat construction equipment in the shipping containers.
Authorities seized one shipment, containing 53 firearms and more than 6,800 rounds of ammunition, bound for Beirut in Norfolk, Va., in March 2015, according to the complaint. Another intercepted container had 99 guns, more than 9,500 rounds of ammunition and gun parts and accessories, records show.
The four family members were taken into custody in May 2015 after authorities raided Midamar Corp. and found one such container with firearms and ammunition concealed among bobcat skid loaders. There also were clothing drive items that Midamar was sending to Syria and Lebanon.
None of Midamar’s management or employees were charged in the conspiracy.
Murphy, in arguing for more prison time during Adam Al Herz’s sentencing, said the family did it for greed because guns are worth 10 times as much there as in this country. Murphy admitted Adam Al Herz wasn’t the leader, but he bought at least 62 firearms and put his name on shipping documents for the containers.
Murphy also said Bassem Herz, who purchased a high number of firearms, pursued selling guns to known Lebanon arms dealers with ties to Hezbollah because he knew they would make more cash.
Adam Al Herz asked the court for a “second chance,” saying he regretted what he did. He apologized to the other members of his family and his mother for the “stress” he caused her.
“I’m embarrassed and ashamed,” Adam Al Herz said.
Several of his family members and friends who attended his hearing became emotional when they heard the sentencing.
Chris Cantrell, Department of Homeland Security special agent, testified during Zeaiter’s sentencing that she had a financial role in the conspiracy. She used her bank account to funnel money from the sale of weapons, was involved in purchasing guns and skid loaders and buying other items to cover up gun purchases.