Crime

Weapons intrigue is high at hearing

Porterville resident Talal Ali Chammout will spend 6 1/2 years in federal prison for being a felon in possession of firearms, but it was the specter of arms dealing and terrorism that dominated Chammout's sentencing hearing.

Wednesday's sentencing culminated a four-hour hearing that stretched over two days in U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger's courtroom.

Prosecutor Stanley Boone said Chammout, 48, never faced terrorism charges, but then he played snippets of nearly two dozen conversations between Chammout and a government informant in which the two discuss weapons, purchase prices and how to smuggle them to the Middle East.

Boone resurrected the arms dealing -- under a legal strategy known as "relevant conduct" -- in seeking a longer prison sentence than recommended under federal guidelines. He wanted Chammout sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

Chammout's attorney, Roger Nuttall, was upset, not only because the government tried to get more prison time for alleged conduct that Chammout never pleaded guilty to, but also because the prosecution was trying to embarrass his client by playing the undercover tapes in court.

Nuttall, in the meantime, filed motions seeking a sentence of three to four years in prison.

He argued that Chammout was only charged with being a felon in possession of firearms, had owned up to the crime and had some good qualities.

Chammout's brother and a nephew spoke on his behalf.

"He loves guns," said his brother, Imad Chammout, "but he's not an arms dealer."

When Chammout was arrested last December, federal authorities said he purchased several weapons and other military materiel such as chemical suits and combat boots that he was told were stolen from the military.

At his Porterville business -- Trucker's Oil Co. Petroleum Products -- law enforcement officials seized about 40 firearms, including AK-47 assault weapons and a TEC-9 pistol.

After the hearing, Boone noted that he "never used the 'T' word," a reference to terrorism.

But he did argue in court that Chammout was a sophisticated arms dealer.

Nuttall countered that the government spent more than a year investigating the case, including the secret recordings in which Chammout and the government informant talk endlessly about purchasing weapons as sophisticated as Stinger missiles and delivering them to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

But, Nuttall said, that's all it was -- "loose talk" from a person who liked to make himself appear more important than he was.

"This is a small-time operator who is not following through with anything of significance," he said.

Wanger ultimately didn't buy the government's argument for a longer sentence, saying that while there was "a lot of smoke, we don't have a fire."

But Wanger did find plenty of evidence that "the not-so-good outweighs the good" for Chammout, and for that reason, he also rejected Nuttall's plea for a lesser sentence.

Wanger ticked off a lengthy list of unsavory incidents involving Chammout.

They include an incident in which he shot a juvenile in the leg and struck another juvenile in the face after he confronted them behind his Porterville minimart, another in which he allegedly hit his then-wife in the head with a crowbar, discussions of hiring a hit man who was actually an undercover agent and concealing $80,000 in cash after he'd declared bankruptcy.

Although Chammout's federal case was not tied to the earlier incidents, Wanger took them into consideration when ordering the prison sentence.

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