The feds say they were part of an international murder-for-hire syndicate that sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood crime thriller—a former Army sniper working as a criminal mercenary, a South African encryption software developer-turned-crime lord, and a contract murder in the Philippines.
Joseph Hunter, Adam Samia, and David Stillwell went on trial Tuesday in a Manhattan federal courtroom for what prosecutors say was a conspiracy to kill Catherine Lee, a Filipino real estate agent found shot to death in a vacant lot in Manilla in 2012. “These men are criminals and they committed brutal murders,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Egan said of the defendants, who are charged with conspiring to commit murder-for-hire, committing murder-for-hire, conspiring to murder and kidnap in a foreign country, and using and carrying a firearm in a crime of violence. Samia and Stillwell are also charged with conspiring to commit money laundering.
Hunter, a former U.S. Army sniper, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2016 for his role in a plot to murder a DEA agent on behalf of South African crime boss turned DEA informant, Paul Le Roux.
Le Roux, a programmer, traded his life as the developer of a popular encryption program for the world of crime, reportedly trafficking in methamphetamine from North Korea and selling missile technology to Iran. He employed Hunter as muscle for his criminal enterprise before becoming a DEA informant and setting up a sting operation that earned Hunter his subsequent conviction.
It was on behalf of La Roux that prosecutors say Hunter, Samia, and Stillwell allegedly organized the murder of Lee, the Filipino real estate agent, in 2012.
In an opening statement, Egan promised jurors that the government would share “vast amounts of electronic evidence” seized from the defendants’ email accounts to show their complicity in the conspiracy.
Email snippets from Hunter already released by the government provide an outline of the alleged conspiracy. Using phrases like “ninja stuff”—allegedly code for contract murders—Hunter asked Samia to prepare for a trip to the Philippines in late 2011 while he lined up a “partner” for him on the trip. As Samia and Stillwell traveled from North Carolina to Manila, Hunter allegedly acted as a quarterback for the plot, providing logistical support for two as well as a “target package” to help identify Lee.
As part of that logistical support, federal indictments claim Hunter helped the two men buy hitman-style gear in the days and weeks before the murder, including a silenced submachine gun, a rifle, a “.22 or 380 pistol” and a laptop bag “modified to hold the tool for concealment.”
A week after Hunter sought reimbursement from an unspecified “boss” for the bag, Philippine police found Lee’s body next to a pile of garbage. A forensic investigation would later conclude that she had been shot twice in the eyes with two .22 caliber bullets.
Law enforcement officials later recovered a photograph from Stillwell’s phone showing what they say was “a bloody head wrapped in a towel,” and found the keys to a van allegedly used in the murder during a search of Samia’s North Carolina home.
Samia and Stillwell allegedly received $35,000 each for the murders, moving the money back from the Philippines to the U.S. in installments in an alleged attempt to conceal the proceeds from the murder.
Attorneys for the defendants pointed to the lack of eyewitnesses to the murder and highlighted the government’s intent to rely on witnesses with shady criminal backgrounds like Le Roux. Egan admitted Le Roux would be testifying “in the hopes of receiving some leniency” from the government after pleading guilty to drug trafficking charges.
Samia’s attorney, Jeremy Schneider, said his client was only “guilty of going to the Phillipines to do legitimate security work,” not murder. Stillwell’s attorney, Robert Ray, offered a narrower defense to jurors and denied his client was guilty of conspiracy, claiming he traveled to the Philippines without the knowledge or intent to commit murder.