In February of 2022, Ross Roggio, a 54-year old former paratrooper and con artist from Stroudsbourg, Pennsylvania, was the second American ever indicted for torture. Now, he’s the second ever convicted.
On Friday night, in federal court, a jury unanimously concluded Roggio was guilty of 39 counts of torture, arms smuggling, wire fraud and money laundering, charges carrying over 700 years in prison. He will be sentenced in August and sentencing guidelines indicate he will likely receive life.
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This verdict stems from a scheme, explored in depth by Rolling Stone in February, to build an illegal weapons factory near the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. Weapons made in this factory were sold on the black market in Iraq and Syria, contributing to regional conflict.
It began in 2014 when Roggio was hired by Polad Talabani, a special forces commander from a Kurdish political dynasty, to manufacture Glock-style pistols and assault rifles. Before meeting Talabani, Roggio had been responsible for a series of failed businesses and alleged scams. He was even accused of fleecing a charity set up to help Haitian earthquake victims.
Working for Talabani and his associates made Roggio wealthy – his salary was over $1 million annually – but it wasn’t enough. According to federal prosecutors, Roggio diverted millions of dollars, meant to purchase manufacturing equipment, for his own personal expenses, including Rolex watches and sports cars.
One of Roggio’s employees, an Estonian named Siim Saar, uncovered Roggio’s embezzling, and Roggio, worried that Saar might expose him to his Kurdish employers, co-opted Talabani’s soldiers to have him kidnapped and tortured on a military base. For over five weeks, prosecutors charged Roggio had Saar beaten, shocked with tasers and suffocated. Witness said he forced his other employees to watch torture sessions as a warning to anyone else considering betraying him. Roggio also bragged about his “overwhelming ability” to “crush somebody.”
Later, after Talabani discovered the missing money, Roggio alleges that he himself was kidnapped and tortured. According to Roggio’s legal filings, in December 2016, he was given two months to return $4 million, or he would be killed. Instead, he escaped and fled the country, climbing out of the window of his Sulaymaniyah penthouse apartment at two in the morning while guards watched his front door.
Talabani wasn’t Roggio’s only problem. After returning to America, he was arrested by federal agents, kicking off a bizarre five-year legal saga. Armed with a secret recording of Roggio admitting to torture and other crimes, prosecutors seemed to have him nailed. They offered him several plea deals, but instead, Roggio bet his freedom on a bunch of harebrained trial strategies.
He apparently believed he could avoid prison by engineering an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Roggio refused to cooperate with his own lawyers, who accused him of making “scandalous accusations” in order to lay the groundwork for that claim. Later, after those lawyers were replaced by a court appointed lawyer, Gino Bartolai, Roggio attempted, unsuccessfully, to fire his new lawyer in order to call him as a witness in the case. “I believe it should be explained to him on the record that his own behavior will not be the basis for a future ineffective claim,” Roggio’s first lawyer told the judge.
Roggio also claimed his actions had been authorized by the CIA.
When government investigators first questioned Roggio, after intercepting a shipment of gun manufacturing materials meant for Iraq, he claimed to be working for the intelligence agency. He told the agents they didn’t have the “clearance levels” to talk to him. Later, he admitted that he had no CIA handler, but said he had been instructed to pass intelligence from the agency to Talabani. In legal filings, Roggio also claimed Ken Gross, the American Consul General in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, had authorized his building of a weapons factory.
Ultimately, Roggio admitted to participating in interrogating Saar during the torture sessions but claimed it only had happened under duress. Roggio said he was the one who had actually helped Saar escape Iraq.
“How do I say what Ross Roggio did was OK? It’s not,” Bartolai told jurors, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. “He was trying to get out of a situation by any means he could… Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
The jury didn’t buy it. The overwhelming evidence against Roggio versus his own dubious account was apparently too much for his peers. And even during the run up to the trial, new accusations emerged about his pattern of behavior. Prosecutors alleged he assaulted another employee in Iraq and that he coerced unwilling female employees into having sex with him.
Now, for Roggio’s victims, all that remains is to learn exactly how long he will spend in prison. “When is sentencing?” asked Kristy Merring, one of Roggio’s ex-wives, who testified about his crimes during the trial. “I want to be there.”
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