With a New York judge moments from deciding his fate, Richard Chichakli stood up in court and told a story about the day he picked up a globe and spun it around in search of the country farthest from the United States.
“I twisted that globe and on the other side was Australia,” Chichakli told the judge on Thursday.
The 56-year-old Syrian-born, longtime US citizen and accountant, who was the financial brains behind infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, made it to Australia, despite being a hunted man.
He did it with false identities, passports and the confidence he showed while representing himself in court and during his sentencing in the US District Court in lower Manhattan.
“Mr Chichakli continues to remain shrouded in mystery,” Judge William Pauley told the court before sentencing Chichakli to five years’ jail.
The judge remarked how Chichakli’s passports were unlike anything he had seen, with so many stamps the pages “looked like sheets of Rachmaninoff’s music”.
Chichakli’s life changed in 2005 when an FBI agent called on him at his home in the affluent Dallas suburb of Richardson.
“He said, ‘Your net worth is millions?’,” Chichakli told the court.
When Chichakli replied “yes” the agent said: “No longer”.
Chichakli’s dealings with Bout, who earned the nickname “The Merchant of Death” for his arms sales to terror groups and dictators including Liberia’s brutal Charles Taylor, led the US Office of Foreign Assets Control to target Chichakli.
Chichakli became a Specially Designated National, meaning despite being a US citizen, his assets were frozen and he couldn’t conduct a financial transaction in the US, no matter how small, even buying a hamburger at McDonald’s.
“His life changed overnight from comfortable middle class to a pariah,” the judge said.
Chichakli moved overseas, spending time in Russia, Germany, Belgium and Egypt, but drew the attention of US authorities in 2007, when he and Bout attempted to start up Tajikistan-based Samar Airlines.
They tried to purchase aircraft from US sellers using fake documents, front companies, aliases and other means to prevent being detected.
They wired $US1.7 million to two US aviation companies from overseas but OFAC froze the money.
Now desperate, Chichakli set off for Australia and with the alias Jehad Almustafa tried to begin a new life in Melbourne.
He earned $US170,000 a year as an accountant in Dallas, but struggled in Melbourne, where he worked as a cleaner and ran a silverware company called Elegance of Nobility.
He was captured in January, 2013, after undergoing a Victoria Police fingerprint check while applying for a protective services officer job.
Chichakli was found guilty last year of money laundering, wire fraud and conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act for the attempted Samar Airlines plane purchases.
Prosecutor Ian McGinley, who described Chichakli as having “absolutely no remorse”, asked for between seven and nine years’ jail.
In announcing the five-year term, Judge Pauley said Chichakli may have a “warped sense of what is right and wrong”, but could return to be a productive member of society.
Bout, whose life inspired the 2005 movie Lord of War, is serving a 25-year jail sentence in the US.