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Man pleads guilty to trying to sell fighter jet to Iran

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
A California man pleaded guilty to attempting to export a U.S. military fighter jet and aircraft parts, pictured here, to Iran.
A California man pleaded guilty to attempting to export a U.S. military fighter jet and aircraft parts, pictured here, to Iran.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The arrest and guilty plea followed a seven-month government sting operation
  • Agent says man did this "to make an easy buck"
  • Jet was model used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War

Wilmington, Delaware (CNN) -- A California man who tried to sell a fighter jet to Iran has pleaded guilty to attempted military exports violations charges, federal agents said.

Marc Knapp, 35, of Simi Valley, California, pleaded guilty Thursday to two felony counts of attempting to export a U.S. military fighter jet to Iran, other aircraft parts and controlled technology, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall.

Although Hall was unwilling to speculate on what would have happened had federal authorizes not foiled his attempts, Knapp "intended to see these exports through," he said.

The arrest and guilty plea followed a seven-month government sting operation during which Knapp engaged in illegal exports to Hungary and attempted exports to the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia, authorities said.

"This he did, plain and simply, to make an easy buck," said Ed Bradley, special agent in charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service.

Knapp was accused of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which makes it a crime to export to embargoed nations such as Iran, and the Arms Export Control Act, which makes it a crime to export munitions items without a license.

Knapp faces a maximum statutory sentence of 30 years in prison, followed by three years supervised release, a $2 million fine, forfeiture and a $200 mandatory special assessment.

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors will not seek more than 57 months in prison for Knapp. Additionally, Knapp will not argue for less than 30 months in prison, Hall said.

The sentencing is scheduled for May 23. Knapp is currently in custody at an undisclosed facility.

Knapp was involved with the illegal export and attempted export of an F-5B Tiger II fighter jet; five anti-gravity flight suits; one F-14 emergency procedures manual plus three electronic versions of it; four survival radios and two F-14 ejection seats. All items are considered U.S. defense articles, Hall said.

The case demonstrates why export enforcement is so important, said Andrew McLees, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Philadelphia.

"We will not allow United States national security to be compromised by hostile nations, or sold to the highest bidder," McLees said.

During meetings with an undercover agent, Knapp said by selling the equipment "We're essentially, for lack of a better term, leveling the playing field," according to documents.

At one point, when Knapp was told by agents the customer interested in the handheld search rescue radios was Russian -- which were to be sold for $11,000 -- he replied "Awesome," according to documents.

According to unsealed court documents, the case began to unfold after "cooperating defendant" Paul Taylor introduced Knapp to an undercover agent. As part of the sting, the agent met with Knapp on several occasions at locations in California, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Budapest, Hungary, the court papers say.

In July, Knapp sent a contract for the fighter jet to the undercover agent and demanded a $3.25 million purchase price. Knapp was arrested in Delaware in July while negotiating plans to fly the aircraft from California to Wilmington where it subsequently was to be shipped to Iran, Hall said.

The Northrop-designed supersonic fighter jet was part of a group of aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and by the Navy and Marines as a stand-in for "aggressor" fighters in training exercises. But it has primarily been an export plane sold to other militaries.

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During their meetings, Knapp also informed the agent that he had various defense parts and admitted procuring an F-14 ejection seat, which was sold to the agent by another source. Over the course of their negotiations, Knapp provided the agent with various lists containing items for sale, including fighter jet emergency manuals, survival radios and antigravity suits, according to court documents.

"Knapp was willing and able to export various sensitive items for a price to the Islamic Republic of Iran," Bradley said. "No matter what the motive, be it greed or ideological, this threat is real."