SAN DIEGO — Startling even his own attorney, one of the masterminds of the biggest arms theft ring in Navy history sought Tuesday to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of stealing more than $7 million in F-14 jet fighter parts and diverting them to Iran.
Federal prosecutors were prepared to argue that Edgardo P. Agustin, 46, be sentenced to 27 years in prison--the maximum term under his plea bargain--for his role in the theft and smuggling case.
But minutes before U.S. District Judge Leland Nielsen convened Agustin's sentencing hearing, the New York City businessman told his defense attorney, Lonn Berney, that he wished to withdraw his guilty plea and take the case to trial.
Berney relayed the news to Nielsen, explaining that Agustin changed his mind about pleading guilty after reading a probation officer's report detailing the government allegations against him.
But the lawyer said he will not continue as Agustin's lawyer under the circumstances. "I'm not necessarily of the belief it's in his best interest" to change his plea, Berney explained.
Initially, Nielsen said he would reject the request from Agustin, who used an East Coast company to ship the stolen jet parts to England where they were sold to Iran. But after conceding Agustin had the right to a review of his request, Nielsen rescheduled the sentencing for Dec. 22 and set a hearing on the plea change for the same day.
"I can't stop him from making the application," Nielsen said. On Monday, he scheduled a Dec. 22 sentencing date for Agustin's brother, Franklin P. Agustin of San Diego, the ring's West Coast kingpin who is hospitalized with a severe lung infection.
In an interview following Tuesday's hearing, Berney said Agustin may have been "frightened" to see in the probation report the details of prosecutors' allegations that the ring's activities had jeopardized national security.
Prosecutors have said, for instance, that in one 12-month period alone, there were 328 instances when F-14 missions had to be scrubbed for lack of the computers, navigational equipment and other parts stolen by the San Diego-based ring. The ring operated from at least 1981 until 1985.
But Berney said it was "hyperbole and exaggeration" to blame any damage to national security on the ring's activities. Moreover, he said, given recent revelations that President Reagan approved arms sales to Iran in the midst of a supposed U.S. embargo on such trade, the Navy thieves may actually have advanced U.S. interests.
"I don't think national security interests were jeopardized or affected," Berney said. "In light of the disclosures of what went on in the government in terms of sales to Iran, it's quite obvious that, if anything, the national security was perhaps fostered as opposed to jeopardized."
Defense lawyers contend that the ring stole far less than the $7 million in parts government investigators claim to have tracked, and they belittle prosecution claims that the ring's total thefts, detected and undetected, far exceeded $10 million.