Authorities charged four people from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with illegally shipping containers containing guns and ammunition to the Middle East, according to a federal complaint filed Tuesday.
Investigators with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency intercepted the containers en route to Lebanon and were able to trace the munitions back to where they were purchased. The group bought 113 guns – mostly AR-style rifles and some pistols – and thousands of rounds of ammunition from licensed dealers in eastern Iowa during a 17-month period.
The suspects include Ali Afif Al Herz, 50, Bassem Afif Herz, 29, Adam Ben Ali Al Herz, 22, and Sarah Zeaiter, 24. However, Ali Afif Al Herz is the only person named in the criminal complaint.
The tip off
A federal firearms licensed dealer tipped off authorities in February after the group bought several guns and cleared the shelf of more than 2,000 rounds of 5.7mm ammo. The dealer told authorities he saw them buy 20 firearms at a gun show in the months before.
A short time later, the dealer said the group returned to buy more guns, ammo and accessories. On Feb. 19, the dealer believed his suspicions were confirmed when he noticed that Ali Herz kept referring to a text message during their interaction that was written in a foreign language. The dealer suspected the message was an advisement on the types of accessories to buy.
Around March 12, Ali Herz picked up parts he ordered from the same dealer to assemble 15 AR-style rifles.
Investigators checked records obtained from gun stores in the surrounding eastern Iowa area and found at least 113 gun purchases in the past 17 months. Together, they spent more than $100,000. However, investigators believe the group bought more, but they have not located the records.
Records show that they had no criminal convictions that would have disqualified them from buying a gun or ammunition, however, none of them had a license to export guns from the U.S. either.
Ali Herz was born in Lebanon, but moved to the U.S. in 2003 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Since 2003, he’s traveled in and out of the country more than 25 times and, most notably, returned to the U.S. carrying $61,400 in cash on Dec. 2.
His son, Adam Herz, was born in the U.S. Adam Herz left the U.S. 15 times and of all the times re-entered, he was questioned twice. Both times he claimed to be returning from Lebanon after visiting for three and two months.
Bassem Herz is Ali Herz’s brother. He was born in Kuwait but became a U.S. citizen. He’s made multiple trips outside of the U.S. starting in 2003 and has also shipped goods like “water equipment,” a bulldozer,” “front end loader,” and an “SUV” to Lebanon.
Zeaiter is married to Bassem Herz. She was born in Lebanon but is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.
Smuggling guns to Lebanon
Investigators tried to figure what the group was doing with all the guns – whether they were reselling them or shipping them. They found that between Aug. 8 and Sept. 4, “Herz Enterprises” shipped a container with a Bobcat skid loader and that Adam Herz was listed as the point of contact, so they looked for more recent records.
On March 24, special agents with the Department of Homeland Security checked international outbound cargo shipments and found Herz Enterprises shipping another container to Beirut. The point of contact was again Adam Herz.
That container also held a piano and boxes and bins filled with clothing, shoes, honey and household supplies. Some of the boxes had “Midamar” branding and had “Syria” written on them, which gave investigators another lead.
Investigators learned the shipping arrangements for the second container were made by an employee of Midamar Corporation, a Cedar Rapids company. On March 12, the container was shipped from Cedar Rapids to Chicago, where it was loaded onto a train and delivered to Norfolk and then on to its final destination in Beruit.
On March 26, the container was intercepted in Norfolk, Virginia, and inspectors found 53 guns, gun parts and accessories, and more than 6,800 rounds of ammo hidden inside the container. The guns were removed from the factory packaging and wrapped in plastic bags from a Cedar Rapids restaurant called Pizza Daddy.
After finding the guns in the shipping containers, investigators then worked through the paper trail.
The dock receipt listed the exporter as Elissar Inc. and had a phone number that they later learned belonged to Bassem Herz. The trucking company used to deliver the container to Chicago was signed by Zeaiter. And then investigators learned Zeaiter was the one who bought the Bobcats.
On May 6, investigators learned the group had been making arrangements to ship another container overseas from Midamar. They began to survey the group at their home and observed Ali Herz load items into a U-Haul truck and attaching a Bobcat skid steer onto a trailer. Authorities followed Ali Herz to the container, which he and Adam Herz loaded.
Investigators learned from U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection on May 7 that the container was being shipped by Herz Enterprises with Adam Herz as the point of contact.
The next day, law enforcement intercepted the container and upon inspecting the cargo, they found a total of 152 guns hidden within the Bobcat, suitcases and boxes.
Local media reported all four suspects appeared in federal court in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday afternoon. They were charged with conspiracy to provide a container or package containing firearms and ammunition to a common carrier without notice to the shipper.
If convicted, each faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.