Public Safety

Federal appeals court upholds three family members' convictions for smuggling guns to Lebanon

Appeal for fourth family member remains pending

(From left to right) Adam Ben Ali Herz, Ali Afif Al Herz, Bassem Afif Herz, Sarah Majid Zeaiter
(From left to right) Adam Ben Ali Herz, Ali Afif Al Herz, Bassem Afif Herz, Sarah Majid Zeaiter

CEDAR RAPIDS — A federal appeals court Monday upheld convictions of three Cedar Rapids family members for smuggling 252 guns among skid loaders bound for Lebanon in 2014 and 2015.

U. S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed sentences for Ali Al Herz, his brother Bassem Herz and Herz’s wife, Sarah Zeaiter, for their part of smuggling guns from Cedar Rapids to Lebanon in shipping containers. The three pleaded, along with Al Herz’s son, Adam Al Herz, 25, in 2016.

Adam Al Herz’s appeal was filed later and is pending.

Ali Al Herz, 53, pleaded guilty to being a prohibited person in possession of firearms, firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act, meaning he didn’t have a license to export firearms. He was sentenced to 27 years.

Bassem Herz, 33, pleaded guilty to firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which is not having a license to export firearms. He was sentenced to eight years

Sarah Zeaiter, 26, pleaded guilty of one count each to firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act. She was sentenced to seven years.

• Adam Al Herz, 23, pleaded guilty to firearms conspiracy, conspiracy to commit money laundering and violation of the Arms Export Control Act — that he didn’t have a license to export firearms. He was sentenced to 20 years.

Ali Al Herz argued U.S. District Senior Judge Linda Reade, who was chief judge at the time, should not have imposed an enhancement regarding the number of guns. According to evidence, he told investigators there was an estimated 227 firearms in the March and August 2014 and May 2015 shipments, but he argued that didn’t distinguish between ones he purchased and what others purchased and shipped. The appeals court found he was accountable for at least 200 guns.

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His other argument for less time served, based on his acceptance of responsibility, also failed because the court noted that before sentencing he attempted to say he didn’t make the stipulations stated in the plea agreement. The court pointed out Al Herz claimed he sold firearms to his cousin, not a firearms dealer, but his cousin is a firearms dealer.

Bassem Herz, argued in his appeal that he should have received less prison time because he assisted law enforcement and prosecutors in the investigation but the prosecutors didn’t ask for less time time at sentencing.

The court pointed out prosecutors were not required to ask for less time under the plea agreement, and during sentencing prosecutors said Herz wasn’t truthful, he lacked credibility and didn’t “tell the same story twice.”

Herz also agrued he only purchased 56 firearms, according to the ruling. The court, however, noted that Herz told authorities that he purchased about 80 guns. During sentencing, he said he lied after feeling under pressure when police broke into his home, beat him up and threw his child to the floor.

Judge Reade, at the time, asked for further testimony about this and found out when officers entered Herz home that day with a search warrant, the door opened and hit him in the face while he was holding his child, the ruling shows.

Zeaiter, in her appeal, argued she should have received less prison time because she didn’t participate in the planning or organizing of the gun smuggling, but instead acted at the direction of her husband.

The court said she may have played a lesser role but she actively participated in the “well-planned, coordinated scheme.” Zeaiter, who is from Lebanon, falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen to open a bank account used in the scheme, got a permit purchase und helped prepare the shipments.

The initial investigation led to the March 2015 seizure of 53 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition concealed inside Bobcat skid loaders within a shipping container at the Norfolk, Virginia, seaport bound for Lebanon. A subsequent investigation led to the May 2015 seizure of a second shipping container in Cedar Rapids, also destined for Lebanon, with 99 guns and ammunition concealed inside skid loaders.

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The group had previously sent two similar shipments to Lebanon in March and August 2014, according to evidence presented during hearings. Each of the containers had been loaded and shipped from Midamar Corp. in Cedar Rapids.

Midamar owners or employees were not charged in this conspiracy.

Evidence presented during hearings showed the containers were bound for southern Lebanon, which is controlled by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. But the evidence showed none of the family was part of the terrorist group. Prosecutors said the family’s motive was greed because the guns could be sold for 10 times their value in Lebanon than in the United States.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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