116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Feds: Guns bound for Mideast found in Cedar Rapids clothing drive
CEDAR RAPIDS — Four members of a Cedar Rapids family conspired to hide caches of guns and ammunition bound for Beirut among boxes of goods collected in a company's clothing drive for Syria and Lebanon, authorities said Tuesday.
Federal officials said they intercepted two shipments that had originated in Cedar Rapids, seizing more than 152 guns and ammunition.
It was not disclosed who the weapons were intended for in Lebanon.
Three men and a woman were arrested and appeared Tuesday afternoon in U.S. District Court.
Ali Herz, 50; his brother, Bassem Herz, 29; his son, Adam Herz, 22; and Sarah Zeaiter, 24, the wife of Bassem Herz, each face two charges of conspiracy and delivering a package to a carrier without notice that it contained firearms and ammunition.
At their initial appearance, all except Zeaiter told U.S. District Chief Judge Linda Reade they were U.S. citizens. Zeaiter was born in Lebanon but has permanent residency here, documents show.
The afternoon court hearing capped a day of raids as local and federal officials fanned out across the city to search the Pizza Daddy restaurant, 1539 First Ave. SE, the Midamar Corporation, 1105 60th Ave. SW, and other locations linked to the defendants.
A federal complaint examined by The Gazette paints a picture of a conspiracy that came to light last year when an unnamed firearms dealer in Eastern Iowa became suspicious of large purchases of handguns, rifles and ammunition and tipped off authorities.
An investigation into the tip revealed additional purchases at other dealers — all made legally — and led authorities to the four defendants and to Tuesday's raids.
One of the locations raided was the Midamar Corporation, which bills itself as a leading U.S.-based Halal food brand.
Earlier this year, according to a Facebook post and court records, the company held a clothing drive to collect items for 'refugees from Syria and the region stranded in Lebanon.'
Mike Lahammer, an attorney for Midamar, said in an interview that no employee of the company had any knowledge of weapons or ammunition being sent there.
Midamar contracts with others like Herz Enterprises — referred to in the complaint — who use its export services.
'Midamar is not responsible for bill of lading … they don't check the containers,' Lahammer said. 'That's Herz's and others' responsibility. It's using Midamar's shipping resources, but the individual companies using the services are responsible for certifying the contents to comply with export laws.'
He said Midamar was responsible only for goods associated with the clothing drive it had organized.
According to the records, the four defendants purchased 113 firearms from licensed dealers in the past 17 months, but that may not include other transactions.
On March 24, Homeland Security agents checked records of outbound international cargo shipments and discovered that a freight container being sent to Beirut showed the exporter as 'Herz Enterprises' under the name of Adam Herz on Catskill Street SW.
Two days later, the container was intercepted in Norfolk, Va., records show. It contained 53 firearms, parts and more than 6,800 rounds of ammunition hidden in skid loaders.
In the same container, clothing, shoes, honey, household supplies and a piano were found. Some boxes had 'Midamar' branding and had 'Syria' written on them, the records show.
The firearms had been removed from their original packaging and some were placed in plastic bags similar to 'if not the same as' bags used by the Pizza Daddy store, court documents show.
The shipping arrangements for the container were made by an employee of Midamar, the court records show. But the dock receipt listed the exporter as Elissar Inc., 1536 First Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.
According Iowa Secretary of State records, Elissar was incorporated in 2008 and operates under the name of Pizza Daddy, which is owned by Maitham Herz, a brother of two of the defendants.
Asked by a KCRG-TV9 reporter Tuesday if he knew anything about the alleged gun shipments, Maitham Herz said, 'No, I have no idea.'
A telephone number for the exporter belongs to Bassem Herz, the bill of sale was signed by 'Bassem' and the printed name was Bassem Herz, records show.
A trucking company bill of lading showing the shipper lists Sarah Zeaiter, with the address for Pizza Daddy.
Authorities said they then learned arrangements had been made to ship another container, and began surveillance.
Investigators said they saw Ali Herz and others loading items onto a U-Haul truck and placing a Bobcat skid steer onto a trailer attached to the truck at Ali Herz's home on Wilder Drive Se in Cedar Rapids.
The truck and trailer containing the Bobcat were then driven to Midamar by Adam Herz, where the shipping container was already on a trailer at the loading dock at Midamar, records show.
Homeland Security agents learned from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the container was being shipped May 7 by Herz Enterprises.
On May 8, officers searched the container and said they found 99 firearms, more than 9,500 rounds of ammunition and various firearms parts and accessories. Guns and ammunition were also found concealed with suitcases and boxes containing clothing, authorities said.
A total of 152 firearms were seized from the two containers. Another container was not interdicted, federal authorities said in a news release, but they did not say why.
About 47 weapons believed to have been purchased by the defendants have not been found, investigators said.
Authorities said they also discovered evidence of checks and wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars associated with the guns and ammunition purchases.
If convicted on all charges, each defendant faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
All four defendants made their initial court appearance accompanied by public defenders.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy asked a judge to keep all four in jail pending trial based on 'danger to the public,' a risk of flight and because the case has an 'international scope.'
Bassem Herz didn't ask for a detention hearing, but the other three requested one. Those hearings will be May 15.