SAN DIEGO — For Pedro Quito, a partly deaf, 60-year-old retired sailor who worked as a civilian in the Fleet Avionics Logistics Support Center at San Diego's North Island Naval Air Station, it began when he stopped by a travel agency in the Filipino business area of National City to buy round-trip tickets to the Philippines for himself and his wife.
The travel agent, Julie Francia, introduced him to her fiance, an insurance salesman named Frank Agustin, whom she later married. In the months that followed, Agustin began taking Quito to lunch and out for dinner. He sold Quito some car insurance, and he also tried to interest him in one of the hard-working Agustin's sidelines--government surplus airplane parts.
Hardly the fodder for spy thrillers. But out of this casual relationship, federal officials now allege, grew a conspiracy to steal parts for some the nation's most sophisticated jet fighters, missiles and other equipment--for clandestine delivery to Iran.
The group assembled by Agustin, including Quito and at least two others, had access to Navy inventory computers and parts intended for at least four Navy ships and two supply centers, court documents say, and before their arrest in July, equipment worth millions of dollars was stolen.
The story of how they allegedly exploited weaknesses in the military supply system to feed vital spare parts to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's forces in defiance of a U.S. embargo is a tale with a disturbing moral: Far from requiring highly skilled agents or elaborate espionage techniques, a foreign power apparently penetrated this country's surprisingly porous military supply system with startlingly simple and unsophisticated methods.
Indeed, with the United States counting on advanced technology to give it a vital edge in national security and Administration officials from President Reagan on down warning against letting this country's defense technology fall into unfriendly hands, the potential magnitude of the loss in such a case stands in stark contrast with the mundane, almost trivial methods used.
In the words of Peter K. Nunez, the U.S. attorney in San Diego whose staff is now prosecuting the case: "If these guys could do what they did, what is to prevent someone else from doing it?"
'Not KGB Agents'
"This is not James Bond. These are not KGB agents stealing defense secrets. These are little people motivated by dollars who I don't think care about where the parts are going. If the Ayotollah had said we needed galvanized garbage pails they would have stolen that," Nunez said.
Arrested in the case were Agustin, who moved into San Diego's close-knit Filipino-American community from Canada in 1979; his wife, Julie, a longtime socially active member of the Filipino community; Frank's brother Edgardo from New York; Quito, and two sailors, Primitivo Cayabyab and Antonio Gatdula Rodriguez. A seventh man living in London, an Iranian national named Saeid Asefi Inanlou, was taken into custody by British agents.
All seven persons were charged on at least 61 counts each of conspiring to steal, transport and illegally export U.S. military aircraft parts. Each has pleaded not guilty in federal court, except for Inanlou, who has not been served with the U.S. charges in Britain. He is free on $150,000 bail after being charged with violating British export laws.
Lonn E. Berney of New York, who is representing the Agustin brothers, said that at most the government's case is about two men engaged in an import-export business who were "mistaken" about what they were permitted to send out of the country.
'Two Legitimate Guys'
"You've got two legitimate guys who in the worst scenario, the worst, they were a little careless and mistaken . . . that some of the things, that maybe some of these things shouldn't be shipped," Berney said.
But recently released court records show that investigators believe Agustin may have headed a ring that included as many as 20 persons, many of whom were in the Navy. Prosecutors say their investigation is continuing.
In the view of federal officials, the unswerving loyalty and allegiance to family and close friends that exists in many parts of the Filipino community--a quality known as pakikisama --played an important role in the case. It enabled Agustin, working through his wife's long-established ties in the community, to develop the kind of relationships with people like Quito and Cayabyab in which he could make unusual demands.
Successful and Generous
The Agustins were known as one of the Filipino community's more successful and generous professional couples. She ran a well-known travel business, and he sold insurance. He had married Julie in 1982 after a brief courtship, making him a relative newcomer. But Julie had lived in San Diego since 1959, and had helped found the Pampangueno Assn., a social group for Filipinos from the province of Pampango outside Manila. They were regular guests at dinners, picnics, awards banquets and other important social functions.